Between 1948 and 1986, New Jersey Mafia hitman Richard Kuklinski is said to have killed somewhere between one hundred and two hundred and fifty men. Having committed his first murder when in his middle teens, Kuklinski eventually gravitated towards the world of organised crime and for several decades worked as a contract killer for the DeCavalcante crime family based in Newark, New Jersey. He did all of this while posing to his family as a successful currency broker. The Iceman is Israeli director Ariel Vromen’s biopic thriller of the ice cold killer, based on interviews with the man himself. It stars an in form (when is he not?) Michael Shannon in the lead role.
The Iceman is a film that I’ve been hotly anticipating for some time. I have an interest in the history of the Cosa Nostra and find that it often forms the basis of excellent movies. Although this is an above average film and features several great moments, it won’t go down with the likes of The Godfather, GoodFellas or even Donnie Brasco in the annals of the great mafia movies. I expect there will be many comparisons drawn to Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece of the genre in particular but unfortunately, despite a fantastic basis for a story, the film is like a skimming stone. It skips along the surface without delving into the murky deep beneath the surface.
The movie isn’t very plot driven and works much better as a character study. The plot generally revolves around the central character’s lust for financial security and insatiable appetite for violence. The love for his family also runs deeply through the film from beginning to end and forms the basis for some of his actions. Even with these three facets, I never felt as though I got to know the man or his world. The thirty years or so that the film takes in often flies by far too quickly and it feels as though important events are rushed through or missed out altogether. What keeps the film ticking over is the highly skilled direction and cinematography and a spell binding central performance from Michael Shannon.
When I got home I was disappointed and a little shocked to discover that the film was shot on location in Detroit, Michigan and Shreveport, Louisiana. While watching it I didn’t think for one minute that the movie had been filmed outside of the New York-New Jersey area as the detail was spot on. In one scene in particular, when Kuklinski carries out his initiation with Ray Liotta’s Roy DeMeo I actually thought about the logistics behind shutting down a small portion of Lower Manhattan for filming the scene and how it must have taken time to remove all of the modern street furniture. Perhaps this not only speaks to how closely the scene resembled Manhattan but also to how invested I was in the story. I don’t recall thinking about filming logistics in The Godfather.
As well as excellent location recreation, which includes an under construction World Trade Centre in one scene, the film is also notable for its fantastic costume work. The period clothes looks great in both their accuracy and their visual appeal. As Kuklinski kills more and more people, his and his family’s wardrobe becomes much more stylish and he becomes ever more dapper. The cars and houses also show a visible increase in wealth. Something which I wondered about while watching was how the real man’s wife didn’t know that something fishy was happening. For all his money and prestige, he rarely discussed his cover job. I’d personally find this very strange but it’s either something that Mrs. Kuklinski failed to pick up on or purposely ignored.
The casting of The Iceman is near perfect but there is one exception. Through no fault of his own, David Schwimmer is impossible to take seriously in a role like the one he is cast in here. Throughout the film I watched intensely with a slight furrowed brow but whenever Schwimmer appeared, he raised a smile on my face. Just the sight of him, especially with the comedy moustache reminiscent of the same one from the Friends home videos episodes, was enough to make me giggle. I feel a little sorry for the actor because he doesn’t do much wrong in the role but because of his success elsewhere I just can’t take him seriously here.
The rest of the cast excel and are lead superbly by Michael Shannon who is quietly becoming one of the best actors working in Hollywood today. To look into his eyes is to be met with the same weight and force of a late summer thunderstorm. You can feel the heat and pressure behind his intense glare. It sometimes feels as though if he were to look up, he could will the rain down from the clouds. It’s rare to find an actor deliver so frequently as Shannon and this performance is amongst his best. He carries the film on his broad shoulders and embodies the icy mentality needed to play the character. He is unflinching in the murder scenes and barely bats and eyelid when confronted with a gun to the head. The pent up anger and malice that occasionally burst from within him is terrifying.
Alongside Shannon is a back on form Ray Liotta. Since GoodFellas it could be argued that Liotta has somewhat wandered in the movie wilderness but he is back on solid and familiar ground here. He shows both the danger and tenderness which you come to associate with his character and it’s nice to see him in this sort of movie again. Chris Evans is unrecognisable for all but one of his scenes. I saw his name in the opening credits and kept wondering when he’d show up only to find out that he’d been on screen all along without realising it was him. This performance is one of the best I’ve seen him give so far. Winona Ryder plays her part in a coy and cute manner early on, getting stronger and more forceful as the years of living with someone like Kuklinski take their toll. John Ventimiglia is superb in a small role and Stephen Dorff and James Franco have decent cameos. Young McKaley Miller also looks like a ready made star.
The film is pretty violent and doesn’t shy away from showing what Kuklinski did with his life. The violence doesn’t often linger though and it comes in short, sharp bursts. The movie in general is fairly fast paced but it slows occasionally. I found the slower sections more to my liking but it mixes up the pacing effectively. The movie also looks great. It has a slight greenish-blue hue to it which works well and interiors are nicely dark and smoky. For me the main problem with the film is that a two hour movie just isn’t enough time to study the life and psyche of a man like Richard Kuklinski. He is far too interesting to cram into two hours and as I said earlier, this means that the film barely scratches the surface. It’s almost like the introductory overview to the character and I was yearning for something more substantial to get my teeth into. Despite its flaws though, The Iceman is a gritty, well made Mafia thriller which features some skilled film making prowess and an award contending central performance.
- James Franco was originally cast in Chris Evans' roll and Benicio Del Toro was replaced by Ray Liotta. Maggy Gyllenhaal dropped out due to pregnancy.
- The film has a body count of 15.
- The movie had its premier at The Venice Film Festival.