It’s no surprise that the story of Richard Kuklinski has made it to the big screen in writer/director Ariel Vroman’s The Iceman. Abused as a child, Kuklinski’s penchant for violence led him to a long career as a prolific contract killer for the New Jersey mob. The numbers often vary but he is alleged to have killed between 100 and 250 men.
While that story is the stuff of numerous mob movies already, the kicker here is that Kuklinski managed to keep his hit-man career a secret from his wife and kids until the day of his arrest. In the days before Google, keeping up the pretence of a successful career in finance must have been a far easier prospect.
With such juicy subject matter, it’s a surprise that Vroman’s film isn’t more thrilling. From the moment we meet Kuklinski (Michael Shannon) courting his future-wife Deborah (Winona Ryder) and scraping a living dubbing porno tapes, The Iceman just lurches on through a series of events in his life without any real zip or verve. While individual scenes are compelling, the film lacks the style to make its wannabe Goodfellas script really shine.
While the film spans a number of decades, with suitably grubby period details and a stunning array of dodgy ‘staches along the way, Vroman keeps his focus more on Kuklinski’s ascension in the mob and his relationship with Mafia boss Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta) rather than the dichotomy between his career and home life which is what ultimately makes Kuklinski’s story different to the average gangster yarn. Vroman also chooses to round off the edges of Kuklinski’s life, doing away with the violence in his marriage and shying away from his frequent forays into killing for sport.
Making up for the film’s shortcomings is Michael Shannon, one of the most exciting actors around, giving a mesmerising lead performance. His considerable presence commands the screen whether he’s callously despatching his victims or tucking in his daughters at night. It’s a tour de force that elevates the otherwise generic material to another level.
He’s supported by an appealingly strange assortment of bit-players, including a moustachioed David Schwimmer as an incompetent enforcer, Stephen Dorff as Kuklinski’s incarcerated brother and Chris Evans as an improbably hirsute hitman who keeps his victims in his ice-cream truck. There’s even a brief cameo from James Franco as a God-fearing lowlife who finds himself on the wrong side of Kuklinski’s revolver.
Ultimately, The Iceman falls short of the kind of mob epic it clearly has aspirations of being but the offbeat supporting cast and towering turn from Shannon enliven an otherwise by-the-numbers crime picture.