By Alex McPherson

Director Jonathan Hensleigh’s new film, “The Ice Road,” is a solid, thoroughly predictable chunk of B-movie entertainment. 

The film centers around Mike McCann (Liam Neeson), a blue-collar mechanic and big rig truck driver struggling to hold a job while looking after his brother, Gurty (Marcus Thomas), a war veteran with aphasia who’s also a skilled technician.

After an isolated diamond mine operated by Big Business “Katka” collapses in Manitoba, Canada, Mike and Gurty are recruited by fellow driver Jim Goldenrod (Laurence Fishburne) to help deliver life-saving wellheads to a mining base near the disaster location. They’re joined by a young Indigenous woman named Tantoo (Amber Midthunder) and a corporate actuary from Katka named Varnay (Benjamin Walker).

Together, the group must race to their destination before it’s game over for the miners, contending with all-powerful Mother Nature and greedy, cutthroat humans along the way.

Viewers likely know exactly what they’re signing up for with the “The Ice Road.” Indeed, Hensleigh’s film isn’t high art, but it remains an enjoyable diversion nevertheless. With Neeson embracing his action hero starhood once again, some likable characters, and a few stressful set-pieces, the film’s storytelling missteps and shoddy CGI don’t completely negate its charms.

Neeson does what he usually does here — portraying an aging badass with a short fuse willing to go to extreme lengths to protect those he cares about. While “The Ice Road” could have given his character more time to develop, he’s still a gruffly amusing lead, who’s fun to watch when let off the chain in the final act.

His brotherly bond with Gurty, well-portrayed by Thomas, is believable and surprisingly poignant, albeit heavy-handed thanks to the clunky script. Midthunder is underutilized but leaves a positive impression as Tantoo, an activist working for Goldenrod whose brother is trapped in the mine. Fishburne is primarily relegated to providing exposition dumps, but his grizzled mug fits in well amidst the snow-covered landscape.

The side-characters, on the other hand, don’t leave much of an impact. The backstabbing corporate heads of Katka are cartoonishly one-dimensional, and the sketchy Varnay has an arc that most viewers can likely foresee before the trek is even underway. The trapped miners are easy to sympathize with, but none of them stand out individually. Sure, we hope they get rescued, but “The Ice Road” could have done more to flesh them out as real people and not deploy them mainly as a plot device to heighten tension.

When our intrepid truckers embark on their treacherous voyage, “The Ice Road” presents some distinctive obstacles for them to overcome. Principally among these challenges are, you guessed it, the unstable ice roads they traverse. Hensleigh does an effective job at cranking up suspense when the ice could break beneath their feet at any moment. Watching them navigate their surroundings and evade deadly “ice waves” yields some thrilling moments, and scenes of Mike and company extricating themselves from sticky situations using their engineering skills are compelling to watch. 

Unfortunately, when “The Ice Road” becomes a more traditional action thriller in its second half, Hensleigh doesn’t quite deliver the goods the material warrants — using some fake-looking CGI and iffy hand-to-hand combat that lacks any real “oomph” factor, held back by the film’s PG-13 rating. Familiar tropes of last-minute escapes, heroic sacrifice, and the bad guy who absolutely will not die are present in full force. While those clichés aren’t glaringly bad, the film has neither the emotional stakes nor the visceral action necessary to forge its own path.

Still, despite all this, “The Ice Road” is an adequate, though forgettable, way to spend two hours, trucking along at a steady enough clip without totally spinning out.

“The Ice Road” is a 2021 action-thriller written and directed by John Hensleigh. Starring Liam Neeson, Laurence Fishburne, Benjamin Walker, Marcus Thomas and Amber Midthunder, it is rated PG-13 for strong language and sequences of action and violence. Run time is 1 hour, 49 minutes. Alex’s Grade: C+ 

 By Lynn Venhaus
This is one of the most violent movies I have ever seen. That said, it is a mostly satisfying thriller of kick-it-up-a-notch action, interesting plot developments and a nimble cast that elevates the good vs evil throwdown.

An ordinary husband and father with a desk job, Hutch Mansell (Bob Odenkirk) is in a rut. Every day is monotonous and nondescript until intruders break into his suburban home, and while his son Blake (Gage Munroe) acts, he thinks twice before using a golf club he grabbed to defend himself. While everyone thinks he’s a chump, the incident sparks a long-simmering rage and he becomes a vigilante of sorts.

However, this isn’t as far-fetched as you think because he has a dark secret. When he gets in the way of a brutal drug lord (Aleksey Serebryakov), things really heat up.

From Charles Bronson’s “Death Wish” in 1974 that ushered in mild-mannered dads exacting their own street vengeance to Liam Neeson’s dangerous dad in the “Taken” trilogy (2008-2014) and all the copycats in between, these movies have an appeal as strictly black-and-white action, no gray areas or nuance, in seeking retribution. You get exactly what you expect.

With a sharp script by Derek Kolstad, co-creator of the John Wicks trilogy, the pleasures of seeing a regular Joe reveal his long-dormant lethal skills in clever ways are central to the secret identity plot.

Carrying the film with genuine authority is Bob Odenkirk, who not only stars but is a producer. The Chicago native attended Southern Illinois University Carbondale and after years as a comedy writer and performer, is now best known as glib attorney Jimmy McGill from “Breaking Bad,” which was spun off into the hit series “Better Call Saul.” The Emmy nominated actor’s keen sense of timing is a plus as an action hero, although he’s not a stranger to drama either, having appeared in “The Post” and “Little Women.”

Director Ilya Naishuller, an indie rock musician and lover of hard-core video games, kicks the film into high gear with non-stop mayhem after Hutch turns his frustration and anger into vengeance that sets into motion a battle royale with Russian drug lord Yulian Kuznetsov, played by Aleksey Serebryakov as a ruthless hothead with some clownish behaviors.

But first establishing the drudgery of Hutch’s daily life and his family dynamic is key to understanding the transformation and the shocking previous life.

Hutch works on the finances of his father-in-law’s manufacturing business. He’s the butt of his more macho brother-in-law Charlie’s jokes. His teenage son thinks he’s a wimp, unlike his younger daughter Abby (Paisley Cadorath) who adores him. His wife Becca (Connie Nielsen) is a successful realtor and distant. He keeps taking life’s indignities on the chin as a “nice guy.”

So, in the aftermath, when they are in further harm’s way, his sudden protective reflexes are a surprise.

Somehow, his dad David (Christopher Lloyd), a retired FBI agent living in a nursing home, and his brother Harry (RZA), do not raise an eyebrow when he must do what he has to do. After all, they have secrets too, and it is fun watching the tables turn. Lloyd and RZA are terrific in support.

The barrage of gunfire and fights gets tedious because of its take-no prisoners formula, but that’s what the action genre delivers, and the mind games are an interesting twist.

Bob Odenkirk as Hutch Mansell in Nobody, directed by Ilya Naishuller.

Hutch won’t be considered a “nobody” for much longer, and they did leave it open to a sequel. Odenkirk, as a new action star in the Jason Statham lane, is one of the more startling notes of the spring movie season. But I would never bet against him, would you?

“Nobody” is an action-thriller directed by Ilya Naishuller that stars Bob Odenkirk, Connie Nielsen, Aleksey Serebryakov, Christopher Lloyd, RZA, Gage Munroe and Paisley Cadorath. It is rated R for strong violence and bloody images, language throughout and brief drug use. Lynn’s Grade: B-. In theaters March 26.

By Lynn Venhaus

With its gorgeous setting, “Made in Italy” delivers on the breathtaking vistas. And there is an extra poignancy of the Neesons’ real tragedy played out in the mens’ emotional scenes.

The film, written and directed by actor James D’Arcy with loss in mind, is about an estranged father and son (real-life father and son Liam Neeson and Micheal Richardson) who travel from London to Italy to sell a Tuscan villa. Bohemian artist Robert Foster (Neeson) inherited this house from his late wife, and it has fallen into disrepair the last 15 years.

We have rooted for the father and son duo of Liam Neeson and Micheal Richardson in real life ever since the tragic death of wife and mother Natasha Richardson in 2009 during a skiing trip – Micheal was 13 and his younger brother Daniel 12. The men are playing guys who don’t get along, who have deep resentments, painful memories and are stuck in heartache.

We can identify with the turmoil. And as likeable as they are as people, the story is a routine family drama that is as predictable as a pasta dish at the local restaurant. Therefore, the pleasure is seeing Micheal — he took his late mother’s maiden name as his stage name — working alongside his father.

Not that the characters don’t have their charms. Neeson plays a still-grieving man who is stuck in regret and can’t start again, after a tragic accident took his wife. His life has no direction.

Jack is troubled but driven. He wants to keep the art gallery he managed for his soon-to-be-ex-wife’s family, but they want to sell it. Hence, the quick rehab job in Tuscany. However, being back at the place of both happy and sad childhood memories affects him.

The renovation do not go well. They are not equipped to handle the work but they persevere and take steps to mend their relationship. Along the way, there are bumps in the road, and they meet some colorful characters along the way. Lindsay Duncan plays a no-nonsense realtor named Kate, who becomes their ally, after initial trepidation.

While they are fixing up the place, Jack meets a local chef, Natalia (Valeria Bilello), who makes a killer risotto, and they are attracted to each other.

Composer Alex Belcher balances both the natural beauty with the family drama, and cinematographer Mike Eley captures the lush green hills in an appealing way.

The themes of family and home are stressed in D’Arcy’s debut. It’s just missing freshness and sincerity.

“Made in Italy” is a drama directed by James D’Arcy and stars Liam Neeson, Micheal Richardson, Valeria Bilello and Lindsay Duncan. It is rated R for language and run-time is 1 hr. 34 minutes. Lynn’s Grade: B.
A version of this review ran in the Webster-Kirkwood Times.

By Lynn Venhaus
Elevated by beautifully nuanced performances from award-worthy Lesley Manville and sturdy Liam Neeson, “Ordinary Love” shows us “all the feels” between a longtime married couple facing a life-altering situation.

Married for a long time, Tom and Joan face new challenges when she is diagnosed with breast cancer. Their relationship is tested during this frightening journey. The intimate contemporary drama is about the moments between a couple that give meaning to their lifetime together – by showing their daily living routine, yet underneath that microscope, they must deal with uncertainty and a test on survival.

As cancer touches every family in America, your level of comfort with the realistic details from tests to surgeries to treatment will depend if you have gone through it with a loved one, or yourself. It may trigger memories of those tense, distressing times.

Co-directors and married-in-real-life couple Lisa Barros D’ Sa and Glenn Leyburn present a comfortable, common life of two senior citizens – assuming they are retired, but nobody says from what – in the most generic way in northern Ireland. Yet, as unexciting as it is, there is revelation in its repetition.

That’s largely due to Manville and Neeson’s ease with playing two people who spend a lot of time together – conveying both affection and aggravation in equal parts. They converse in recognizable ways — bickering at the grocery store, kidding each other without malice, complaining about minor things, and sitting in their living room ‘places’ while watching television in the evening, after their daily walk – just everyday regular folks.

And that’s the beauty of Owen McCafferty’s astute script, that it dares to be mundane. The film spotlights the kind of run-of-the-mill details and feelings expressed that make it thoroughly relatable, especially with such skilled performers.

The changes with Joan’s breast cancer diagnosis are the significant test to their strength as a unit. They’ve already endured the loss of a child – their daughter Debbie “was killed” but we don’t know how or at what age. It’s frustrating to not know that information. The only drawback to the script is how little backstory we get.

Neeson becomes the dutiful caretaker while Manville reluctantly transforms from the take-charge half to someone needing help – and they both admit how frightened they are. Her ability to telegraph quicksilver emotions, large and small, is astounding, and their tenderness together is palpable.

Manville, nominated as the controlling sister in “Phantom Thread” for a supporting actress Oscar, shows the strength and courage needed to fight cancer as well as the vulnerability associated with something beyond your control. The waiting, the wondering – all captured well. And the film is nicely shot, too – a noteworthy mix of the bright lights of hospitals and the shadows of a home.

It’s refreshing to see Neeson, who has been in that action zone for years, tackle the head of household role with such honesty. On a personal note, after undergoing the tragic death of his wife of 15 years, Natasha Richardson, in 2009, that had to be difficult to re-live incidents demanded in this script, which is why tackling such a role is admirable.

The ordinariness of “Ordinary Love” makes it appealing, yet it’s the craftsmanship of the project that keeps us interested and deepens its very human perspective on staring at our mortality and life as we know it. Ob-la-di, ob-la-da, life goes on – we all have learned that – but to be reminded how just ‘keep on keeping on’ is quite an achievement is not a small thing.

“Ordinary Love” is a drama rated R for brief sexuality/nudity. Directed by Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn, it stars Lesley Mann and Liam Neeson. Run time: 1 hr. 32 minutes. Lynn’s Grade: B+