The Iceman

In Films by David Watson

The killer is huge, 6’4 1/2″, 300 pounds of hard muscle running to fat.  Dark, almost black, eyes stare implacably at you from under heavy, sleepy lids.  There’s no mercy, no feeling in those eyes; he’s a black hole sucking the life right out of the room.  He’s a shark, a predator, a pure sociopath and serial killer, a sadist who found an outlet for his perverted desires by murdering over 100 people as a contract killer for the New York Mafia.

Watching the infamous series of groundbreaking HBO documentaries from 1991 to 2002 on Richard Kuklinski is a sobering, chilling experience.  Balding, with a neatly trimmed goatee beard, he’s softly spoken and slightly breathless, a man who never needs to raise his voice.  Speaking in a matter-of-fact monotone, he recounts in conversation with a largely unseen psychiatrist the details of a career in murder that included stabbing, shooting, beating, strangling, poisoning and gassing his victims.

Known as ‘The Iceman’, not because of his coolness as many people thought but because he often froze his victims’ bodies to obscure their time of death, he made snuff movies of some of his victims, setting up time-lapse cameras to record the horror as he fed them, alive, to starved rats.  He was implicated in the murders of union leader Jimmy Hoffa and gangster Roy DeMeo.  He killed for money but also for pleasure.  He killed people for the sport and he killed people for the practice – experimenting with different methods, refining them, perfecting them.  He killed men, he killed women, he killed the innocent and guilty alike, his only moral restriction being that he probably wouldn’t kill a child.  Any film about him should be a horror show, a grand guignol, soaked in blood and perversity; it should make your skin crawl, should chill you to the bone.  Which is why Ariel Vroman’s pedestrian true-crime thriller The Iceman, based on Anthony Bruno’s best-selling biography is such a disappointment, turning a genuinely terrifying American bogeyman into an antihero with an admirable work ethic.

Starring Hollywood nutbag de jour Michael Shannon as Kuklinski, the film is content to follow the well-trodden path of Hollywood Mafia hitman movies – the rise and fall of a ruthless, efficient but honourable killer (no women, no kids remember) juggles everyday family life with murdering a lot of people before ultimately being brought down by hubris and the betrayal of a stinking rat.  Cliché-ridden and by-the-numbers, the film tones down Kuklinski’s excesses (none of the really horrible murders make it in or the fact that he used to choose random victims in the street as practice kills) charting his rise during the ‘70s and ‘80s from smalltime pornographer to terrifying contract killer as he carves out his own slice of the American Dream, marrying nice Catholic girl Deborah (Winona Ryder) and starting a family in suburban New Jersey as he commutes to the city doing hits for paranoid, psychotic mobster Roy DeMeo (Ray Liotta, who else?) and forming a bizarre partnership with ice cream van-driving assassin Chris Evans.

As ever, Shannon gives his customary bug-eyed loon Marmite performance, which is somehow far less terrifying than his recent turn as foul-mouthed, inventively sweary, Delta Gamma sorority sister Rebecca Martinson.  An intelligent sadist who, once caged, was genuinely interested in what allowed him to commit such horrific acts, collaborating on several documentaries and working with psychologists and profilers in an attempt to understand his bizarre pathology, The Iceman turns Kuklinski into a lumbering, near mute thug with intimacy issues.  Ryder meanwhile is bland in the thankless role of Kuklinski’s put-upon wife while Ray Liotta is just Ray Liotta again only more so.  There are nice turns however from Stephen Dorff as Kuklinski’s jailed paedophile brother and David Schwimmer (yup, Ross from Friends) as a doomed smalltime gangster.  Perhaps the best performance in the film however comes from Captain America himself, Chris Evans, whose Vietnam veteran turned ice cream assassin is as genuinely disturbing as his real-life counterpart Robert Prongay.

A two-star timewaster of a crime film, there is nothing as chilling in this film as the moment Kuklinski tells Dr Park Dietz in the 2002 documentary not to like him too much as he’s not a nice guy, The Iceman earns its extra star for a scene where sleazeball photographer James Franco weeps and begs on his knees for his life before being executed by Shannon.  Not enough films feature a sniveling Franco beg for mercy before being shot in the face.