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5/17/2013

Review: 'The Iceman' starring Michael Shannon and Chris Evans


Perhaps The Sopranos is to blame for it, but it seems as if the world of gangsters doesn't hold quite the same mystique. Back in the time of TheGodfather it felt like we were truly getting a glimpse behind the curtain and into the unknown lives of these dangerous men with their odd moral codes, foreign sense of loyalty, and exciting fearlessness. But HBO's hit series went deeper; giving us a fully-formed look at the double-lives these men lead as vicious killers one moment, seemingly perfect family men the next. So when a movie like Ariel Vromen's The Iceman comes along and attempts to do the same thing with nothing new to add to the equation, it just comes off as "been there, done that".

Nobody does dark and brooding better than Michael Shannon, and he's ultimately a perfect to play real-life mob hit man, Richard "The Iceman" Kuklinski. The true story begins in New Jersey 1964 with the close-mouthed Kuklinski on a first date with his future wife Deborah (Winona Ryder, still ageless). She's chatty, he's not, but it goes well enough that he's willing to brutally slit the throat of a man who insults her. He keeps the murder secret from her, adding it to the pile of other secrets he's hiding. He tells her he dubs movies for Disney, when in fact he works for mobster Roy DeMeo (Ray Liotta) dubbing his voice over porno movies. When the porn business dries up, DeMeo hires on Kuklinski as an enforcer and contract killer, although we're never clued in to why that decision was made. Over the course of his career, Kuklinski reportedly fulfilled over 100 contract hits, and we see some of this play out courtesy of brief, well-staged montages. Only a few get any real time to develop, one of which features James Franco (who was initially set for a larger role but had to back out) as some random sleazy dude.

Jumping ahead years at a time, Vromen fails to build up any clear narrative momentum before moving on to the next time period. When DeMeo starts feeling the pinch from his bosses because of the actions of his second-in-command (a badly miscast David Schwimmer), Kuklinski is forced to go freelance, teaming up with Robert "Mr. Freezy" Pronge to stage hits from the back of an ice cream truck. We're meant to believe that a large part of Kuklinski's motivation to team-up is his need to support his family, but his dual life as devoted husband/murderer is never explored any real depth. For that matter, Vromen and Morgan Land's script never bothers to scratch the surface in exploring what makes Kuklinski tick, other than the occasional flashback to an abusive childhood.

Kuklinski is a fascinating figure, whose story has been chronicled numerous times before, most notably in a pair of HBO documentaries where he explained his terrifyingly cold outlook. Shannon is a powerful force of nature in the role, and is clearly the best reason to turn out and see the film. Evans' shtick will remind many of his performance in The Losers, while it's also nice to see Ryder in a role that is truly new for her. Liotta is....well, he's Ray Liotta. He's always in Goodfellas mode, regardless of the character he's portraying.

Economically shot with a few noirish touches, Vromen's film lacks inspiration but looks good enough to not be a distraction. The Iceman isn't horrible, it's just a little dull, one-dimensional, and doesn't reveal anything we haven't already seen.