In the 1960s, Richard Kuklinski is working as a porn film lab tech until his mob bosses persuade him to change his career into that of a contract killer. For years, Kuklinski gains a reputation for cold blooded professionalism even as he raises a family who are kept in the dark about his true career. Unfortunately, mob politics ultimately forces him to secretly work independently with the psychopathic Robert 'Mr. Freezy' Pronge. As much as Kuklinski tries to keep his lives separate, circumstances and his own weaknesses threaten a terrible collision as the consequences of his choices finally catch up to him. Written by
Kenneth Chisholm (firstname.lastname@example.org)
A massive, formulaic disappointment, with a towering performance from Michael Shannon
Having developed a morbid fascination with serial killers over the past few years, I was delighted to hear that Richard Kuklinski, one of the most prolific and emotionless mass murderers in history, was to be given the cinematic treatment. Not only was his story ripe for a juicy adaptation, but Michael Shannon, the most consistently mesmerising actor working in film today, was cast as the titular Iceman. Sadly, inexperienced director Ariel Vromen, who up to this point had only made two films I've never heard of, has delivered a by-the-numbers biopic; one that follows familiar genre conventions and whitewashes Kuklinski's story completely in favour of a formula that a mainstream audience can comfortably follow.
After being impressed by his towering frame and generally intimidating nature, mob boss Roy DeMeo (Ray Liotta), who is in the employ of the Gambino crime family, takes the young Richard Kuklinski under his wing. To get a feel for him, DeMeo tells Kuklinski to kill at tramp in broad daylight, to which Kuklinski coldly obeys . Soon enough, Kuklinski is carrying out mob hits for DeMeo, while telling his clueless wife Deborah (Winona Ryder) that he is in finance. He meets fellow contract killer Robert 'Mr. Freezy' Prongay (Chris Evans), who teaches Kuklinski the benefits of using cyanide to carry out the murders, and then freezing the bodies to rule out a time of death. But with DeMeo coming under pressure from his boss Leonard Marks (Robert Davi) for a drug deal gone wrong, Kuklinki finds himself and his family under threat.
What might have been a fascinating insight into the inner workings of a sociopath, The Iceman is nothing more than your standard straight-to-DVD mobster movie. Completely ignoring Kuklinski's natural instinct for murder (he was a serial killer long before the mob approached him) and his reputation as a merciless and cruel man, beating and killing men for the slightest of reasons, Vromen even adds a family angle that is completely untrue. To give the lead character a bit of recognisable humanity, here he is portrayed as a loving family man, dedicated to his wife and kids as the mob close around him. In fact, in real life Kuklinski was an aggressive wife-beater; a tyrannical king of the household who regularly committed acts of physical and mental abuse on his family.
Artistic license is a right that every film-maker has when conducting a biopic, but when there's a complex and fascinating story to tell, however dubious some of Kuklinski's claims are (he claims to be responsible for the murder of Jimmy Hoffa), then why make such drastic changes if all you're doing is making your subject the same character seen a thousand times before? Shannon deserves better than that, and his unnerving performance is one of the few saving graces here, but his character is reduced to nothing more than a standard mobster, seduced by the lifestyle and cutting himself off from regular life. He was a cruel, savage monster, who disposed of some of his victims by having them eaten alive by rats (or so he claims), or in one incident, he allowed his victim time to pray to God to see if he would answer his prayers, before killing him (this scene is played out in the film with James Franco as the victim).
Plot strands veer off path and are offered no resolution, making them completely redundant. Some are intriguing, such as Stephen Dorff's appearance as Kuklinski's imprisoned paedophile brother, who hints at Kuklinski's dark childhood and abuse. Others are not, such as DeMeo's right-hand man Josh Rosenthal (David Schwimmer) who is given more screen time than necessary, only for the story to fizzle out into absolutely nothing, as does DeMeo himself. Given a longer running time, a more experienced director, and ultimately more commitment to the source material (various books and recordings exist of Kukinski, the most popular being Philip Carlo's book The Iceman: Confessions of a Mafia Contratc Killer and the TV movie The Iceman Tapes), this could have been highly engrossing cinema, instead it's a crushing disappointment, saved only by Shannon's imposing performance.
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