The Iceman: Michael Shannon Will Kill You Now

The Iceman

Opens Fri., May 17 at Varsity and other theaters. Rated R. 105 minutes.

Like many a true-crime tale, the story of Richard Kuklinski sounds like it would make an incredible movie. A hired killer, Kuklinski also murdered for the sheer sport of it. When he was arrested in 1986, his wife and children had no idea he’d been doing anything illegal. They thought he was a businessman.

The Iceman is further proof that not all true-crime tales make incredible movies. A dreary wallow in the mire, this one goes wrong almost from the start—save for the lead casting. The Iceman is carried on the formidable back of Michael Shannon, the Frankensteinian actor from Take Shelter and Boardwalk Empire. He brings the eerie focus of a man who could smite you down just for looking at him sideways—ideal for this role, though limiting for projects that don’t require the unsettling threat of immediate death.

Somehow this outwardly quiet maniac finds a wife (Winona Ryder, suitably fragile) and settles into small-town Jersey life while prospering as a hit man for a second-rate gangster (Ray Liotta). As in every gangland saga, mob-world etiquette is as rigid as an imperial court’s, so when Kuklinski breaks protocol, he has to improvise to make ends meet. This leads him to the practice of deep-freezing his victims so they can be held for future disposal, a specialty that earns him his nickname.

Scattered through this grisly scenario, which goes on for decades, are stock lowlifes played by actors who clearly cannot resist the chance to slap on a vintage ’70s mustache: Chris Evans, David Schwimmer, Stephen Dorff. Everybody but James Franco, right? Oh, wait, here he is, in a 10-minute cameo as a sleazebag given an unusual opportunity by Kuklinski: As he splutters out prayers under the killer’s gun, Kuklinski promises to wait a few minutes in case God wants to intervene.

That episode is drawn directly from Kuklinski’s memories of his career. If director Ariel Vromen had stuck with a more documentary-style cruise through the man’s appalling life, perhaps The Iceman would’ve found an appropriately chilling groove. Instead we hear about Kuklinski’s abused childhood, and even begin to root for him when the sleazy gangsters threaten his family. At some point he becomes like Billy Bob Thornton’s Sling Blade guy—yes, maybe he’s a tad maladjusted, but surely we can understand his protectiveness of home and hearth.

All of which undercuts Shannon’s undeniable strength in the part. It does make one eager for his upcoming turn as Superman’s nemesis in Man of Steel: There’ll likely be little time wasted on exploring the psychological underpinnings of General Zod.

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