Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Iceman

“You’re as cold as ice
You’re willing to sacrifice our love
You never take advice
Someday, you’ll pay the price, I know”  Foreigner, 1977

                   Review by Ken Burke                 The Iceman

This a brutal tale of an actual later-20th century mob hit man who kept his profession secret from his family, but his frenzied concern for their safety finally brought him down.

[Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ brilliantly insightful reviews.  This is how we write, so as to explore what must be said as art transcends commerce (although if anyone wants to pay us for doing this ...); therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when ready to be transported to—well, wherever we end up.]

You might think that with all the violence in the world today that it would be a hard sell to fund and promote a film that presents the biography of Richard Kuklinski (on the left in this photo, along with his Mafia boss), a real New Jersey mob hit man responsible for a 100 or so murders, but that’s exactly what we get in Ariel Vromen’s The Iceman, with the marvelously-disturbing Michael Shannon in the title role of an experience that, unfortunately, delivers little more than what you might expect from its subject matter but still does it in an unsettling manner, effective enough for its purposes.  Kuklinski’s career stretched from 1964 to 1986 (well documented in The Iceman in the evolving clothing and hair styles of those decades as the killer’s appearance—along with many others in the cast—becomes increasingly hidden behind additional facial hair [those ‘70s moustaches remind me of something that the now-moved-on-from-SNL Bill Hader would often wear], but it does help distinguish Kuklinski from clean-shaven boss Roy Demeo [Ray Liotta] who to me looks more like his enforcer than I’d ever noticed from previous screen appearances of these two; Shannon is notably taller than Liotta, but when I first saw him in a dimly-lit mid-‘60s scene I was immediately struck by how easy it would be to do a remake of Goodfellas [Martin Scorsese, 1990] with Shannon in the role of Henry Hill (another real mobster [also FBI informant], portrayed by Liotta in that gangster classic), during which time he ruthlessly murdered a small army of those considered inconvenient or troublesome to his Mafia superiors, seemingly without any impact on his conscience (see the very unnerving interview with the actual killer as the second of the recommended videos at the end of this review) except where his personal (no killing of women and children, even if they were unintended witnesses to his deeds) or entrepreneurial (while put on reserve by Demeo during a time of instability within “the family,” Kuklinski started doing freelance jobs for other mobsters) decisions put his wife and daughters in jeopardy.  Shannon is a master at showing discomfort and isolating himself even in the midst of interchanges with other characters (especially as the mentally-troubled John GIvings who speaks truth to the increasingly-incompatible Frank [Leonardo DiCaprio] and April Wheeler [Kate Winslet] in Revolutionary Road [Sam Mendes, 2008] and as Curtis who is tortured by either delusional or prescient apocalyptic visions in Take Shelter [Jeff Nichols, 2011]), so he’s perfect in this role of unfeeling responses to his homicidal profession and tortured concern that his attempts to keep his family in material comfort from his supposed “currency exchange” profession will result in harm to them when Roy delivers a “cease and desist” ultimatum for no more contract killings or else (an order given traumatic credence when one of Kuklinski’s daughters is injured in a calculated hit-and-run just to show that Roy is serious).

When we first see Richey (as wife Deborah [Winona Ryder] prefers to call him, although maybe it’s Richie, Ritchie, or Ritchey—that’s neither clear nor important) he’s answering questions in a dimly-lit chiaroscuro closeup (a type of lighting used effectively through The Iceman) after his arrest, so his bearded face barely emerges from the shadows (like a Rembrandt portrait of Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, if you can imagine such a combination) where he stalls on the query of “Any regrets?” (again, for reference see the full-length documentary noted below on the real Kuklinski, who acts like he would walk over hot coals just to get a more direct path to a hot dog stand without feeling any pain—or caring if he did).  Within the context of the film's events we can surmise that this semi-fictional version of Kuklinski would answer that question—if he chose to share it with the interviewer—with the admission that he’d have preferred to provide better security for his family so as to not put them at risk instead of letting his misguided temper and protective attitudes lead to faulty judgments where they were concerned.  In the above photo to (with Deborah, older daughter Anabel [McKaley Miller], and younger sibling Betsy [Megan Sherrill]) we’re in the midst of an incident where Richey was distracted while driving the family down a busy urban street and rear-ends the guy in front of him.  The incident could have easily blown over except for the angry driver of the other car choosing to hurl a quick insult at the wife and girls as he drives off; this leads to a dangerous chase through city streets and alleys, as Kuklinski is determined to catch up with the guy and make him pay for his offense, even as his family is screaming at him to stop driving so recklessly, further endangering them for reasons they can’t comprehend.  (Clearly Richey has no behavior modulation ability; it’s either calmly carry out heinous acts because these strangers-soon-to-be-corpses have no value or interest to him or react furiously/despondently to any perceived insult or danger to his loved ones—even if he blindly adds to the danger by his irrational acts instigated by his initial desire to protect their honor and their safety at all costs.  If I were choosing to do 1 of my more-usual-of-late-dual-reviews here I wouldn’t have a very solid link between my 2 most recently-viewed cinematic examples—The Iceman and Star Trek into Darkness [J.J. Abrams]—except for how tension grows between Richey and Deborah in this film and Spock [Zachary Quinto] and Uhura [Zoe Saldana] in the new Star Trek episode [which I will review very soon], based in each case on how the woman in the romantic pairing feels that her man is jeopardizing their relationship, by not taking Deb into his confidence as to what the outside source of constant tensions are with Richey in The Iceman and Spock not considering the impact on Uhura when he risks his life to save the unknown primitive strangers on a distant planet in the first scene of the new Star Trek.  [And coming right up is another new accomplishment for me, as this ongoing aside will span two paragraphs!  To infinity and beyond!—although "infinity" is probably what my paragraphs read like anyway.]

Characteristic of the men involved, Richey explodes through the house—with the first show of truly raw emotion that we’ve seen him display, well into his story—and convinces Deb [sadly, without telling her anything of what his professional life is really all about] to accept his troubled silence as indicative of all that he endures for the stability of his family, while Spock rationally describes to Uhura how the flood of paralyzing emotions from the human half of his heritage so overwhelmed him when his home planet of Vulcan was destroyed in the first of the rebooted Star Trek movies [Abrams, 2009] that he’s willed himself to never allow that to occur again, so that it isn’t that he doesn’t care for how Uhura would feel about losing him it’s just that he can’t bear to expose himself to such pain again so that he doesn’t acknowledge what is buried deep within him [like Deb, she accepts this answer as an acknowledgement of “this is who my guy is,” although such acquiescence to the male prerogative works out poorly for Deb but much better for Uhura—more on that in the upcoming review of the adventures of the Enterprise crew].)  Throughout his film, Richey’s daughters don’t do much except smile when things are going well and scream when they’re not, but Ryder makes an impressive transition from somewhat-shy-but-willing-to-get-to-know-Richey flirt on their first date when we first meet them back in 1964 (where he tells her she’s “a prettier version of Natalie Wood”) to materially-comfortable-but-increasingly-distraught wife of mysterious-but-financially-secure Richey as the story moves quickly along.  Had she known that her future husband had the capacity to sneak up on a guy from a poolroom and slit his throat as he was leaving because he’d made some disparaging remarks about Deb soon after she began dating Richey (or even if she knew that his real job when they met was as a technician making copies of porno films for the mob rather than dubbing off Disney films as he claimed on that first date) she might well have continued to avoid his advances rather than joining forces with him, but given the slim understanding she had of his reality until he was suddenly arrested as they started to drive away from home one day she had every reason to assume she’d made the right choice until his discomfort became more frequent, with her showing a fine range of confused, angry, and forgiving emotions until the whole charade collapsed, with Kuklinski tossed into the pen along with his brother, Joey (Stephen Dorff), a guy that Richey disengaged himself from because he killed a little girl (a road that even Richey wouldn’t take, no matter the order or the payoff).

What Richey is willing to do, though, when his career is put on ice by Roy because, among Kuklinski's other problems, he violates one of the prime directives of the mob (yes, I know, I should have done the Star Trek into Darkness review first because obviously I’m itching to get to it) by allowing a young woman to escape death simply because she happened to be at the scene of one of his hits, thereby allowing a witness to be running around loose, is to link up with “Mr. Freezy” (Chris Evans, much better known for his Fantastic Four/Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer Johnny Storm/Human Torch [Tim Story, 2005, 2007] and Captain America: The First Avenger [Joe Johnston, 2011]/The Avengers [Joss Whedon, 2012] Steve Rogers/Captain America roles than as the stringy-haired assassin he plays here [a guy that I'm beginning to resemble as I let my hair grow longer; maybe it's time to reconsider that choice of image), a killer-for-hire that was sent along as backup on the job where Kuklinski let the innocent witness escape.  Freezy is known as such not only because his cover identity is as the driver of a kids’ ice-cream truck but also because his method is to kill someone, then keep the body in the freezer of his truck for awhile so that when he dumps it and it’s found later there’s no conclusive evidence as to time (let alone day) of death.  They function well together for awhile until Roy gets wind of it and puts the “back-off” threat onto Richey and his family, which was troubling enough until the hit-and-run on Anabel (I think, but my notes are hazy and which daughter was injured isn’t the relevant point) which throws Kuklinski into total turmoil, resulting in his killing of Freezy along with the next-plateau-gangster-above-Roy, Leonard Marks (Robert Davi), and a plot to take out Roy as well, under the escalatingly-bad assumption that Richey can simply kill everyone who might be a threat to his family, never really understanding how many hoods that would be nor taking into account whom he can trust in his schemes which results in an undercover guy with the ATF Bureau (alcohol, tobacco, firearms, and explosives) setting him up for the final bust before he can even fulfill the movie-driven expectations he and we have of scenarios such as this one where he’d at least take out Roy before being nabbed.  But, this is a movie about life, one guy’s life in particular, not a movie about other movies so when Richey’s time is up, it’s up (although his life still had a long while to go as he lived until almost age 71 before dying in March 2006 while still in custody serving time for his convictions, with even his death under some suspicion as it occurred shortly before he was scheduled to testify against former Gambino family underboss Sammy Gravano).

There’s a lot of well-calculated tension and solid acting in The Iceman, but I’m not rating it any higher than 3 of 5 stars for two reasons:  (1) Given what I knew of the premise going in to my viewing of the film I don’t feel that I got anything more than what I expected from the result.  This isn’t a fully negative comment (I still consider 3 to be a positive, would-encourage-you-to-see-it-if-the-premise-really-interests-you type of rating), but it does say that what you expect in terms of the concept is all that you get, nothing to take you to a higher level of consideration and/or viewing impact, such as what I think you get with Star Trek into Darkness (a clear 4 as I’ll explore in a couple of days in a new posting).  We know that Kuklinski is an effective, cold-hearted killer from the title, the history of the guy this film is based on, and even the brief opening scene of his indicated lack of remorse for his crimes.  We learn in the first scene of what is then the ongoing flashback of the film’s content that he is a decent enough sort where his interest in Deb is concerned (sort of like how we perceive a bit of humanity trying to escape the PTSS-consciousness of Freddie Quell [played by Joaquin Phoenix in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2012 masterpiece] in the early postwar scenes of The Master) but even that is tempered when he see his brutal, uncalled-for murder of the guy from the pool hall who simply made a rude comment about Deb’s unwillingness for easy sex.  Beyond that, it’s all just carefully-calculated murder for hire, with no reason for feeling any sympathy for this future felon unless his devotion to his home family (in addition to his willingness to appease his crime “family”) softens his persona any (not for me; except for a grudging admiration for his termination skills I could never comprehend anything but sociopathic disturbance that served as motivation for any of his acts; admittedly, we see a flashback to childhood days where Richey was given a whipping by his father, but that was more about how he withstood the pain rather than how it ruined him for life, as best I can tell)(2) In what I assume is an attempt to further increase the audience lure for a sordid story—and acknowledging that Shannon may not yet be enough of a box-office draw even if viewers recognize him by face (at least until the hairy ‘70s come around for everyone except Liotta and Ryder) and impact from pervious roles more so than name—we have what I consider to be a distraction by casting Liotta (not only because of his resemblance to clean-shaven Shannon but also his association with the slightly-similar mob plot in Goodfellas) along with Evans (Is that really an Avenger under all that hairy disguise?), James Franco in the tiny role of Marty Freeman—the guy who gets popped by Kuklinski but has the innocent witness in the closet at the time—and most obviously David Schwimmer as Roy’s bumbling protégé Josh Rosenthal, hiding behind one of those silly mustaches and functioning as a red herring in the plot (the mob wants him gone but Roy resists in a story line that just evaporates; I know this is all taken from a book and news accounts but except for Richey and Roy’s names and the general arc of Kuklinski’s life as a hit man plenty has been changed for narrative purposes here—including the real identities of most of the other characters—so more could have been done with Josh if anyone really had wanted to).

The Real Richard Kuklinski, "The Iceman"
Using Ryder—who hasn’t been that much on screen since her role in Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, 2010) as the symbolic warning of how over-dedication to your art can be deadly—was a useful casting addition for audience intrigue and power within her limited role, but all of these big-name guys to me are in the way of allowing the story and Shannon’s command of it to be the focus here, although I realize that it probably took the attention-grabbing factor of these additional names to break through the noise this film faces from the big-ticket competition of such fare as Star Trek into Darkness, Iron Man 3 (Shane Black), and The Great Gatsby (Baz Luhrmann [with the latter 2 reviewed in this blog in the May 11 and May 17 postings, respectively]), all of which are now in the high-multi-million-dollar-gross-receipts range (Downey’s post-Avengers vehicle has even crossed the $1 billion mark worldwide; #9 all-time already and closing fast on most of those ahead of it) while The Iceman has yet to make its first million in ticket sales.  Still, I don’t think that the name-brand casting helped all that much in the final impact of the film (although Liotta is quite effective in his menacing attitude and Evans—whom you can forget about previous associations with a bit, given his very altered appearance—shows that he can do more than fill out a superhero suit), where competent, lesser-known actors in those roles would have probably been better choices.  The acting and mood in The Iceman are both well-modulated (except Schwimmer; hard to see what inspired Roy’s loyalty with this goof, who claims to be Roy when he periodically wanders over to Manhattan, causing trouble in the ranks and the worst distraction among the name-brand cast) but offer nothing to enhance our caring for a guy who spends his clandestine nights with Freezy chainsawing bodies into more conveniently-sized disposable pieces.  I can’t find much to enthusiastically recommend it except what I hope is another rung on Shannon’s upward arc of a career.  This guy may be mostly limited to roles as intensely-disturbed outcasts, but if he can keep finding those of the caliber of the ones he’s already succeeded with we’ll be treated to his talents for quite some time to come.

Finally, although I’m going with only 1 film as the subject of this review instead of the pairings I’ve been doing recently, I’ll give you 2 linked songs that have resonance with The Iceman, the first being the full version of Foreigner’s “Cold as Ice” (as cited in the title of this review) from their self-titled 1977 debut album at, just because the lyrics speak well of Kuklinski’s personality and situation (you can just read them at if you don’t care for the song [be patient with this download; it seems to come from the '70s via the tube-driven version of the Wayback Machine) if you imagine Deb singing it to Richey during a prison visit (which may not have happened, given that she was initially dragged off in handcuffs upon his arrest as a possible accomplice, so seeing him again may not have been high on her to-do list).  However, for a fuller allusion to the sense of what we get of the persona and situation of Richard Kuklinski in The Iceman I’d recommend The Doors’ “Riders on the Storm” (from the 1971 album L.A. Woman) with appropriate accompanying visuals at  Hopefully, that will hold you until I return from deep space with the new Star Trek review in a couple of days.

            If you’d like to explore The Iceman further here are some suggested links: (a 2 hour 20 min. documentary about the actual Mafia hetman Richard “The Iceman” Kuklinski—I admit I only watched a bit of this long piece but what I saw is a chilling portrait of a man extremely proficient at homicide and seemingly not bothered or repentant about any of his many murders—although an interviewer of Kuklinski at the end explains that he has a genetic disposition toward such personality flaws which allowed him to be so effectively ruthless)

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P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.

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