This is also where we’re introduced to Mike’s brother Gurty (Marcus Thomas), an amalgamation of outdated mental-disability stereotypes that feels like a role Ben Stiller’s character in “Tropic Thunder” could have used as a follow-up to “Simple Jack.” When the script needs Gurty to be proof that Mike stands up for his brother, he gets picked on by truckers who won’t give his Thermos back; when it needs him to be helpful, Gurty beats up a pair of assailants with his bare hands. When Gurty is intended to display helplessness, he struggles through a psych evaluation with questions like “How long to go with them?”; for extremely long periods of the film, he doesn’t say anything. Gurty also has a pet mouse, of course, because … well, “Of Mice and Men.” We’re told he’s a veteran suffering from aphasia, but it’s perhaps wise to assume “Ice Road” isn’t the most thoroughly researched portrayal of the affliction.
At this point, you probably think “Ice Road” is a clunker. But somehow, despite all these lazy screenwriting elements (and many more) that feel like they were intended to be patched up in a later draft, the film frequently works. A big part of this is Amber Midthunder (“Legion”), who plays a trucker with Native American blood in her veins and a serious chip on her shoulder. A supporting role from the always solid Laurence Fishburne (as a veteran fleet owner named Goldenrod — likely in tribute to the color of the script’s only draft) is also enjoyable, and of course there’s an undeniable charm in Neeson’s indefatigable “I have a very particular set of skills” schtick.
Mixing that formula with the ice road trucker phenomenon — depicting drivers who risk their lives to drive trucks over frozen lakes in Canada’s Northwest territories — brings it a refreshing twist, even if Neeson spends far more time sitting on his butt than kicking someone else’s. The film also has a character named Varnay (Benjamin Walker) who comes along for the ride, providing two additional transparent screenwriting needs — serving as the “outsider” these veteran truckers need to explain every move to (like why they all drive with bobbleheads on the dashboard), and as catalyst for some effectively engineered story twists.