Film Review – The Iceman
Who has a more intimidating face than Michael Shannon? This is an actor who just breathes intensity. He twitches and sneers with scary effect, often appearing as though he can barely hold his rage in. Heck, this guy just recently proved he could recite a simple email with awesome effect. Clearly, he knows what his strengths are, and capitalizes on them. He is almost always the most interesting actor in a scene, because he has such an unpredictable delivery that we wonder what he’s going to do next. His talents are on full display in Ariel Vromen’s crime film The Iceman (2012). Here, we get to see Shannon at his best: constantly on edge, nearing the breaking point, chewing scenery as if it’s bubblegum. In a vacuum, this is some of Shannon’s finest work. It’s unfortunate the film isn’t as good as he is.
Shannon seems to be born to play this kind of character. He is Richard Kuklinski, a mob hitman who operated in the New Jersey area from the sixties to the mid-eighties. Kuklinski has a beautiful wife (Winona Ryder) and two wonderful girls. Like any parent, he wants to be able to provide them with everything they need: a nice house, food on the table, a nice school for his kids to attend, etc. In an effort to raise some quick cash, he hooks up with local mafia head Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta) and becomes a contract killer. Kuklinski soon becomes adept at his new job, perhaps even too good. We learn early on that Kuklinski was a real person, and the film was based on real life events. A stunning statistic says that he committed over one hundred murders during his twenty-some-odd years in the business.
One hundred murders? How could a person possibly live all that down, and still appear to be a well-adjusted husband and father? This is one of the major questions that goes unanswered. Yes, Kuklinski became a cold-blooded killer, but that’s really all we see from him. There are hints at an abused past, and a strained relationship with his brother Joey (Stephen Dorff), but not enough to give this character real dimension. Criminals are vastly interesting to watch because we can examine their twisted moral codes, but here we see a man who fits the definition, but doesn’t have an identity. He’s just another in a long line of movie thugs, with nothing to distinguish him from the rest. In fact, all the characters play types: Ray Liotta is in risk of being typecast as “The Wiseguy” for the rest of his career, and Winona Ryder is much too talented to simply play the devoted housewife who’s completely clueless about her husband’s business affairs.
More curiosities. The rest of the supporting cast is a collage of odd choices. We have Chris Evans playing Mr. Freezy, another hitman who develops a partnership with Kuklinski, David Schwimmer as one of Roy Demeo’s cronies, and James Franco making an appearance as a drugged-out character that may or may not have some important information. When you think of a real-life crime drama, do any of these names come to mind as possible casting choices? I guess it didn’t matter who was placed, because the makeup conceals everybody’s faces. Just about every character has long hair, big aviator glasses, and facial hair of epic proportions. I chuckled at how over the top the makeup effects were; the size of the mustaches would even put Tom Selleck to shame. It was as though everybody was in disguise, not just from other characters on screen, but from the audience as well!
The plot is as generic as it comes: criminals act out in criminal-like behavior, alliances are made and quickly broken, somebody owes somebody else a lot of money, stupid decisions are made, people are killed—and all the while, the police are just around the corner, ready to put an end to everything at any given moment. These storylines have been visited over and over again, and they have become much too predictable. It’s not that the execution is bad; in fact, Vromen does a fair job of handling the material, spanning twenty years in about one hundred minutes of movie time. But there really isn’t much that separates The Iceman from any other crime/gangster movie that came before it.
Except for Michael Shannon. Man, is this guy good. As the walls begin to close in on Kuklinski, Shannon’s acting becomes more and more desperate. He’s like a screw being turned too tight, ready to pop at any second. You can literally see the paranoia reflecting off of Shannon’s face, to the point where he can barely hide it from his friends and family. He’s so frantic to survive that he would pull a gun on anyone before thinking what the ramifications of that murder would be. This movie is all about its central performance; everything else falls to the wayside.
Final Grade: B-