Judge Michael Nazarewycz is making sure his debts are paid.
"Pray to God. Tell him to come down and stop me."
What is it about mob movies? Since the 1930s (and before that, really), film lovers have been riveted by tales of bosses, capos, vendetta, omerta, and—above all else—family. The Iceman—the latest in the crime genre, mob subgenre, based-on-real-life sub-subgenre—brings all of those things, but the most important family in the life of its subject is not necessarily that family.
Facts of the Case
New Jersey, 1964. Richard Kuklinski (Michael Shannon, Man of Steel), while physically imposing, is a quiet, unassuming man on his first date with Deborah Pellicotti (Winona Ryder, Heathers). It's here he reveals to her that he dubs Disney cartoons for a living. In reality, he pirates pornographic films that the mob later distributes.
Delays in production invite a visit from Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta, Goodfellas), a member of the Gambino crime family. Demeo is impressed when Kuklinski is not fazed by the threats made as a result of the delayed production. In fact, when Demeo suspends his porn racket, he recruits Kuklinksi to become a collector of debts—a sender of messages—and a taker of lives. In the years that follow, Kuklinski kills countless people and earns himself the nickname "The Iceman," for his preference of freezing some victims' bodies to throw off the time of death.
All the while, Kuklinksi maintains what appears to be the perfect home life. Deborah becomes his wife, and they raise their two beautiful daughters in the suburbs of New Jersey. Kuklinski is so obsessed with keeping his business life cloistered from his home life, the ladies of the house have no idea—not even one of those familial suspicions so common in tales like this—that Kuklinski is not the financial whiz they think he is in his "day job."
The longevity of mob movies as a subgenre speaks to the demand for that product. To meet that demand, Hollywood offers a significant supply. With such a supply, it takes something special to stand out, and The Iceman stands out—but only barely.
What hinders the film is the script, which falls at the feet of co-screenwriter Morgan Land (Rx) and director/co-screenwriter Ariel Vromen (Danika). The dialogue, while not terrible, doesn't necessarily sparkle, but the greater problem is with backstory and character development.
As backstories go, Kuklinksi's is most important, yet the film leaves far too much to be desired. This is a man who, even before he became Demeo's heavy, used murder as conflict resolution (as evidenced in one early scene). The reason for this—that core motivation—is never developed. Yes, there is a scene where Kuklinksi visits his brother (Stephen Dorff, Blade) in jail, and during their exchange (an audio highlight of the film), there is mention of events in their childhood that would suggest the genesis for Kuklinksi's murderous ways. No matter how true to real life that might be, it's presented in the film as something that was inserted because the story needed to meet a minimum explanation requirement.
Also lacking is any sense of character development. Most of the characters here are two-dimensional, but even the most developed character—Kuklinski himself—isn't developed enough. His is a man that has lived two very different lives for years and years, yet we only ever see those extreme moments—when the two worlds spin too closely to each other. It's intense stuff, but it would have served the story well to see some of the subtleties of how his character was affected when there wasn't a chance for world collision.
What the film lacks in development, though, it more than makes up for in performance. The cast of supporting actors is near-flawless. (I say "near" because David Schwimmer as a mobster is nothing more than Ross-from-Friends-with-a-bad-mustache-and-ponytail as a mobster.) While appearances by the aforementioned Dorff, as well as James Franco (Lovelace), are too brief to fairly judge, others are just meaty enough to be very effective, particularly John Ventimiglia (The Sopranos) and the wonderful Robert Davi (Die Hard), both as mobsters. But the true supporting stars are Ryder and Chris Evans (Captain America: The First Avenger).
This is Ryder's best work in years. She plays the unsuspecting wife as unsuspectingly as you can ask. Other famous mob wives in film—from Diane Keaton's Kaye in The Godfather to Edie Falco's Carmela in The Sopranos—always have at least some suspicion, if not outright knowledge that they choose to ignore/deny. Ryder as Deborah doesn't, and it's completely believable. She also adds the right amount of homemaker and mother to round out the character. When Shannon explodes (more later), she holds her own with him.
Evans is the other standout. He plays fellow hit man, and ultimate Kuklinski friend, Mr. Freezy (named as such because his cover is a working ice cream truck). Because Evans is best known as the squeaky clean Captain America from the Marvel Universe (as well as Human Torch from Marvel's less-successful franchise Fantastic Four), his excellent portrayal as a freelance assassin is disarming. He has a casual style that is perfect foil to Kuklinski's intensity, and where Kuklinski has some lines he won't cross, Freezy is unabashedly amoral. I only hope Evans looks for more roles like this.
However, the star of the film is the man who plays the film's title character, Michael Shannon. Kuklinski is a brooding guy, but brooding is easy. What Shannon does as Kuklinski, despite the weakness of the material, is avoid simply brooding and instead bring a performance with various levels of emotional restraint. Because of Kuklinski's ability to compartmentalize his temper while he plays the role of loving husband and doting father, it would be easy for Shannon to be Mr. Nice Guy at home while being Mr. Hit Man on the street. Because Mr. Hit Man is so much a part of the character's persona, when he is not in that mode (read: at home), surely he must still carry some of that that with him. Shannon does an excellent job of showing the near-boiling personality that is usually hidden from the ladies of the house as something of a controlled simmer. When he does crack—even temporarily—it's like an emotional time bomb has been detonated.
The 1080p imagery of The Iceman (Blu-ray) is sharp, which is a mixed blessing. Bobby Bukowski's (TV's Weeds) cinematography has some choice moments, particularly in darker scenes. Other scenes—like some daytime interiors—are washed out with bad lighting that Blu exposes. The 5.1 TrueHD sound, on the other hand, offers fine, consistent clarity, particularly during the film's quieter moments, of which there are many.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As fascinating as the real-life tale is, the two extras that could have delved into that are nothing more than arduously superficial interview fare. The first, "Making of 'The Iceman'," is a 30-minute exercise in watching clips of director Vromen, producer Ehud Bleiberg (Adam Resurrected), and stars Shannon, Ryder, and Evans, recount the filmmaking process—all without a single still or scene from the film. The interviews in the second, "'The Iceman' Behind the Scenes," are a little more interesting and offer clips, but the piece is only eight minutes long.
If you are an acolyte of this genre or its various subgenres, this is worth owning for Shannon, Ryder, and Evans alone. Otherwise, it's just another offering in a crowded marketplace that does best as a rental.
There is clearly strength in numbers. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Millennium Entertainment
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