Michael Shannon (opposite Ray Liotta) plays real-life murderer Richard Kuklinski in “The Iceman.”
Director: Ariel Vroman
Stars: Michael Shannon, Winona Ryder
With his towering stature, crumpled mug and marbly voice, Michael Shannon has carved out a career playing ticking time bombs. The funniest moment of “The Iceman” arrives early, when his Richard Kuklniski tells Winona Ryder’s dim-bulb Deborah that he dubs Disney cartoons for a living. Of course we know better: he’s Michael Shannon.
Kuklinski is, in fact, the notorious Gambino family enforcer who claimed to have killed anywhere between 100 and 350 people (his accounts varied) before dying in prison in 2006. Until the law caught up with Kuklinski in 1986, friends and family had no clue that this devoted suburban dad with a penchant for cardigan sweaters held a day job as a homicidal psychopath.
This sordid little bit of true crime trivia gets a grungy big-screen treatment from director Ariel Vromen, who can’t seem to decide if he’s making an art-house character study or a grindhouse exploitation picture. The result is an ugly muddle, burying an absurdly overqualified cast beneath phony handlebar moustaches and the umpteenth iterations of New Jersey goombah stereotypes.
Ray Liotta cruises along through a fine bit of typecasting as Gambino associate Roy DeMeo, whose ice-cold ruthlessness falters whenever it comes to his screw-up lackey (an unrecognizable David Schwimmer.) Liotta can do this kind of coiled menace routine in his sleep, but it’s still a kick to watch. “The Iceman” suffers greatly when he abruptly exits the picture — just one of many subplots introduced then abandoned by Vroman and co-writer Morgan Land’s screenplay.
Strange celebrity cameos abound, feeling like favors from the filmmaker’s famous friends. James Franco drops by for five minutes just to get killed, in a bit of business that probably would have been chilling if his presence weren’t so distracting. The movie is hijacked for a spell by Chris Evans, delivering a gonzo turn as a zonked-out hitman who drives an ice cream truck in which he freezes corpses, allegedly to confuse the time of death in coroner’s reports.
Evans’ jabber-jaw Cheech and Chong shtick feels like such a relief because it’s terribly difficult to spend an entire movie with Shannon’s Kuklinski. Gruff, emotionally constipated and remote, he’s an alienating presence and Vroman’s film aspires to no insight besides the fact that he killed lots of people. The chintzy musical score and dingy cinematography give “The Iceman” a cheap, direct to video feel. It’s a low-rent movie with an expensive cast.