Iceman, The (2013)

Reviewed By Eric Lefenfeld
Posted 05/19/13 20:51:24

"Definitely Not An X-Men Spinoff"
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

While his roles have been more diverse than his reputation might suggest, Michael Shannon has become a poster child for playing emotionally closed-off men that are trying (and mostly failing) to keep the lid on an ever-festering mass of sociopathy. "The Iceman," based on the true story of Richard Kuklinksi, a seemingly mild-mannered family man who lead a decades-long double life as one of the mob’s most notorious hitmen, continues this trend of bug-eyed lunacy, and the always reliable Shannon gives it his all. It's too bad that his more-than-game performance is in service of an aimless and underwhelming script that, if anything, is proof positive that an effective crime drama needs to be rooted in something more than smatterings of violence and period-appropriate facial hair.

The film opens on a close-up of Kuklinkski's unmoving face, stoic as can be save for his bulging, shifty eyes. With one shot, it's clear that this is a man at war with himself, and the trudge through his everyday life is a struggle to keep his darker tendencies under wraps. It's a promising start that flirts with a subtlety the rest of the movie quickly squanders, breaking off into a relentlessly-paced gallop and never looking back. From the get-go, Kuklinski is lying to his new lady (Winona Ryder, refreshing in a meaty role after being mostly sidelined over the last few years) about his employment as a pornography dubber. The gulf of lies only widens once a mob boss, Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta), recruits him for even less savory employment. Kuklinski, who developed a taste for murder long before the mob ever came calling, dives in head first, and the rest of the film tracks nothing less than his entire criminal career.

Moving briskly from year to year and hit to hit, there’s no real sense of progression between each vignette. It’s pretty much just kill, fight with wife, then rinse and repeat with different clothes and hairstyles a few years later. The driving force of the story is waiting for the inevitable moment in which Kuklinski's house of cards collapses around him, and the story is just marking time until it gets to that point. It would make worlds of difference if the breakneck pace slowed down for half a second to actually study its protagonist instead of just adding to a laundry list of his grisly career highlights.

If there's a singular theme to be taken away, it's that the intersection of crime and domestic life rarely leads to a happy ending for any parties involved. Not exactly a revelation, and it’s a lesson that’s been gleaned from any number of classic films that "The Iceman" shamelessly apes without ever attempting to dig even a little bit under the surface of the age-old trope.

It's too bad the film is so weightless, as a fine cast has been assembled, in roles both large and small. Ray Liotta can play an intimidating heavy in his sleep, but he's still an electric presence even while going through the motions. Chris Evans, as Kuklinski's ice cream truck-driving accomplice, continues to prove that he can stretch far beyond pretty boy comic book heroes, and David Schwimmer is nearly unrecognizable as a slippery mob underling (requisite droopy mustache included, of course).

It's Shannon, though, that does the heavy lifting, but there’s a dangerously fine line between tics and eccentricities adding nuance to a layered work and them just standing in for genuine substance. This can be partially attributed to an unfortunate phenomena in which an actor that’s become famous for a certain quirk or acting style will pull a Skynet and become self-aware, ready to exploit the unique tics that audiences have come to expect (and gently mock, of course). We long ago lost Christopher Walken in a sea of questionable punctuation and goofy dance moves. Nic Cage soon followed suit, starring in a seemingly endless stream of forgettable films, most of which have the singular draw of seeing the man go "Full Cage," with all of the manic intensity that’s become his stock in trade. Shannon hasn’t crossed this rubicon to become a brand unto himself, but "The Iceman" is the first instance in which a role seems to be actively courting this transition.

The notion of "bringing something new to the table" is not a given requirement for any film. As long as a story is told well, it can and should be judged on its own merit, regardless of how well-worn its beats might appear. "The Iceman," though, doesn’t even pass this bare minimum of a test; it’s overly familiar in most every way, and clumsily executed at that.

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