“The Iceman” is based on the true story of one of the most notorious hitmen of all time. In a timespan that covered the 60s, 70s, and part of the 80s, it’s believed that Richard Kuklinski killed over 100 people as a contract killer, with his murders being so relentless that he gained the nickname of “The Iceman.” This is a story that should be riveting, sickening, and a little mysterious as we watch this heartless man juggle a family life and his occupation, trying not to let one seep into the other. Unfortunately, the way director/co-writer Ariel Vromen tells it, all of these elements are lost in a haze of a film that becomes more blurred together as it proceeds.
It starts back in the 60s with Richard (Michael Shannon) on a date with Deborah (Winona Ryder), his eventual wife. A few years later, he finds himself working at a lab that produces pornographic films. All of a sudden he becomes mixed up with a mob boss, Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta), who offers him work on his team. His duties involve the usual mob activities: collecting debts, delivering messages, and, of course, killing people.
As the story continues into the 70s, we find that Richard and Deborah have had two daughters, and that he’s been moderately successful with his work. However, his decision to leave a young witness alive after a job displeases Roy enough to dismiss him, causing Richard to take desperate action by teaming up with another hitman, Mr. Freezy (Chris Evans), a move that Roy would not approve of if he ever found out.
How could a film like this have gone so wrong? It has all of the necessary ingredients to tell this powerful story, but what ended up getting produced was a quick gloss over Kuklinski’s life that has us flying forward so fast that we can scarcely keep up with it. Kuklinski was obviously a very complicated man, caring deeply for his family, and yet having no scruples when it came to doing the dirty work that Roy asked of him, but this film portrays him as a one-note character and is never able to get inside his head. Because of this, we come away having learned next to nothing about him.
As to how we feel about the subject, obviously we’re supposed to feel some repulsion for what he does, and the film at least allows us to feel that much. However, when it comes to us trying to feel anything else (i.e. sympathy, at least in terms of him trying to provide for his family), it’s rather hard to come by given the inarticulate way the character is presented in the screenplay. He basically becomes stuck in a rut from very early on, going from one hit to the next in a never-ending succession. This is exactly why the film becomes blurred together very early on and quickly becomes forgettable in the process.
At the very least, the film has some star power attached to it. Michael Shannon, who was nominated for an Oscar for his outstanding performance in “Revolutionary Road,” tries his best to make the character work, but he can only go as far as the screenplay will allow him, which isn’t very far at all given the one-note nature of the character. However, he manages to take that one note and turn the character into someone menacing, someone who’s, well, like ice. Winona Ryder, who seems to have been keeping on the down-low lately, also turns in a fine performance as his wife, who somehow didn’t know anything about her husband’s activities.
Other actors of name pop up as well, including James Franco (for one whole scene), Stephen Dorff (again, one whole scene), an almost-unrecognizable David Schwimmer, Chris Evans (Captain America himself), and Ray Liotta, who recently made his first good movie in years with “The Place Beyond the Pines.” Despite it having all of this star power, they too are stifled by weakly-written characters that never truly seem to come alive.
After a thorough examination, it’s not all that hard to see where the film went wrong. The screenplay by Vromen and Morgan Land approaches the subject all wrong. It’s as though they were in a rush to get so much killing in that they forgot all of the important elements that would make us care. As a consequence, a fascinating story and character have been flattened and turned into a hurried mess. It makes you wonder what kind of film could have resulted if the story had been given a proper treatment. Given what we got with “The Iceman,” it looks like all we’ll be able to do is wonder.
Taking a look at the disc now, the film is presented in a 1.78:1 transfer that has a rather gritty look to it, but I assume this was done on purpose to create more of an atmospheric effect. It’s still a very clear picture, so there’s not much to complain about here. The 5.1 Dolby TrueHD audio is loud and clear with no issues to report. Overall, it’s very good quality even with its intended older look.
As for special features, it only includes two featurettes: Making of “The Iceman” and “The Iceman” Behind the Scenes. The Making of runs about 30 minutes and features in-depth interviews with cast and crew discussing various aspects of the film including the genesis of the idea, the casting, and the characters. For those who end up liking the film, this will be a worthwhile watch. The Behind the Scenes featurette runs about eight minutes and merely features more interviews. It’s not nearly as in-depth as the Making of, so between the two, it’s not really worth watching as much.
I wish there was something more to recommend on this disc other than a Making of featurette, but unfortunately there just isn’t. This is merely another missed opportunity to tell what could have been a great story. In someone else’s hands, it might have taken off, but Vromen, who claims to be so knowledgeable on the subject, just seems clueless on how to go about telling it. In the end, in his attempt to get to the heart of Kuklinski, he simply couldn’t get past the icy exterior.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD starting tomorrow.
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This review is based on a copy of the Blu-ray received for reviewing purposes.