Richard Kuklinski (Michael Shannon) had a choice. He was not born into a mafia family and he was not pulled in ala Michael Corleone. Gangster Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta) gave him a choice. Either get out of the car or go over there and murder that bum as your initiation. Kuklinski got out of the car alright, but he got right back in after completing his assignment. The Iceman does not tell you to feel bad for Kuklinski for getting caught up in the racket, he chose his life.
I suppose if you happen to be good at finding unique ways to murder folks and have the stomach for it, contract killer is a career where you don’t mind getting up in the morning to go to work. Kuklinski probably never had a case of the Mondays. Estimates of Kuklinski’s total body count range from 100 to 250. What kind of guy has the tenacity to murder that many people over the span of 20 years? As it turns out, a devoted family man is just the guy who can get it done.
Kuklinski marries Deborah (Winona Ryder), they have two well-adjusted and precocious daughters, and they settle in an upscale New Jersey suburb. Deborah comes across early on as naïve and gullible concerning her husband’s vocation and later on chooses to ignore some glaring warning signs that all is not right. One can forgive her for not jumping to the conclusion that her husband is one of the most effective murderers this side of the Mississippi, but what kind of self-delusions does it take to not ask a few questions when the professed currency trader’s daughter is deliberately run over in the street?
Based on a true story, the movie Kuklinski appears to have a better disposition than his true life counterpart. Michael Shannon plays him extremely dry and stoic, but earnest. Any perceived slight, either physical or verbal, may lead to murder. This is not a guy you want to get stuck talking to at a party. He wears sunglasses while indoors, only speaks in short, staccato sentences, and exudes an overall child molester vibe.
The early displays of Kuklinski’s temper hit harder; he slices a guy’s throat open for bad-mouthing his girlfriend in a pool hall. This scene is juxtaposed to Kuklinski’s awkward first date with Deborah as they are just getting to know one another. What Deborah sees in this guy we can only guess at. He hardly speaks but seems to jump to the front of the boyfriend line when he remarks that she is prettier than Natalie Wood. Kuklinski’s later murder scenes are just him going through the motions. Perhaps this is director Ariel Vromen’s intent; we become bored with Kuklinski’s monotonous killing just as he did.
A certain tedium is inherent in most biopics. They are straight, linear stories and almost always end up overstaying their welcome (Walk the Line, Ray, etc…) as they run out of steam. By the time Kuklinski is dicing up bodies and putting them on ice with Mr. Freezy (Chris Evans), I just wish we could skip to the end. I get it; he kills people but loves his family. Now pick up the pace. I’m not asking for a frenetic-paced Iron Man or Fast and Furious, but Kuklinski the man is too plodding and stone-faced to look at for two hours.
Frequently, a famous face pops up to counteract the overbearing Kuklinski. We run into a heavily-mustachioed David Schwimmer, endure a very brief interlude with James Franco, and watch a very upset Stephen Dorff yell a lot as Kuklinski’s jailbird brother. Ray Liotta checks in every 20 minutes or so playing the same character Ray Liotta has played in every single movie he has been in the last 10 years; menacing and threatening.
The story behind The Iceman would be a good read in The New Yorker but would most likely be one to avoid if it was a TV movie. Since this version has Michael Shannon and Winona Ryder, it is worth it if you love movies about contract killers, but I am pretty sure there is something better on right now you could be watching.
Directed by: Ariel Vromen
Written by: Morgan Land, Ariel Vromen
Starring: Michael Shannon, Winona Ryder, Chris Evans, Ray Liotta, David Schwimmer, Robert Davi, Danny A. Abeckaser, John Ventimiglia, Ryan O’Nan, James Franco, Stephen Dorff