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As Liam Neeson hits ‘The Ice Road,’ maybe it’s time to slow down a little

Analysis by Brian Lowry, CNN

In the 13 years since “Taken,” Liam Neeson has worked practically nonstop, including a pair of sequels. Yet watching his latest action vehicle “The Ice Road” — a by-the-numbers chase movie, which turns him into an ice road warrior — it’s easy to wish that this talented actor would, well, slow down a little.

The movie premieres on Netflix, which might speak to its presumed value, inasmuch as the pandemic has hastened the streaming service’s status as a bit of a dumping ground for theatrical fare deemed to have limited commercial prospects.

Part of that might do with the fact that the film follows a streak of similar Neeson movies with indistinct titles, including “Honest Thief,” “The Marksman,” “The Commuter” and “Cold Pursuit.”

“Ice Road” joins the last of those by throwing Neeson into a snowy setting, here as a down-on-his-luck driver asked to transport equipment on a perilous mission to save the lives of trapped miners. Not surprisingly, there’s a more nefarious element involved, and by the time Neeson snarls, “It’s not about money now. This is personal,” he’s in familiar territory, even if he lacks the “special set of skills” associated with the “Taken” franchise.

To be fair, Neeson has appeared in all kinds of movies during this stretch, portraying the long-shrouded “Deep Throat” in the Watergate-themed “Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House,” as well as supporting roles in the drama “Widows” and “Men in Black: International.”

Yet his steady stream of tough-guy roles — with several more already in the works — has exploited his steely persona while offering little else that would suggest the depth and breadth of his career, from the biographical drama “Kinsey” to the gritty period piece “Rob Roy” to his role in “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.”

Simply put, Neeson has been in a bit of a rut, one that “Ice Road” exemplifies almost literally, since at several points in the movie the challenge involves extricating big trucks from slushy situations.

On the plus side, there’s something reassuring about Neeson’s ability to keep convincingly pulling off such characters, given Hollywood’s predilection for ageism. Like Harrison Ford, even with his recent injury filming the latest “Raiders of the Lost Ark” sequel, he has managed to buck that trend.

Neeson joked about his post-“Taken” body of work at the Toronto Film Festival in 2017, saying his migration into thrillers was an “accident” and that although studios were “throwing serious money at me to do that stuff,” at his age — 65 at the time — “Audiences are eventually going to go: ‘Come on.'”

Neeson later hedged those remarks, before again discussing what was described as his “retirement” from action movies in an Entertainment Tonight interview earlier this year. Still, like Michael Corleone in “The Godfather Part III,” even when Neeson tries to get out they seem to pull him back in.

As it stands, it almost feels like the only thing that can stop the actor is himself — not necessarily by giving up such material, but by becoming choosier and more selective about it.

The bottom line is that Neeson really does possess a broad array of skills, and in these kinds of movies, only gets to use a few of them. Not that there’s anything wrong with that occasionally, but like the man said, at a certain point, come on.

“The Ice Road” premieres June 25 on Netflix. It’s rated PG-13.

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