You can watch extended interviews with Richard Kuklinski online, in which he discusses—rather clinically—his life of crime. Hearing him talk about murder is like listening to Ted Williams describe waiting for the right pitch.
Before he died in prison a few years ago, Kuklinski claimed that he killed more than 100 people, or maybe it was closer to 250. The number was hard for him to gauge because Kuklinski was a hit man for the mob, and since killing someone never fazed him, why would Kuklinski bother himself with remembering them all?
In The Iceman, Kuklinski (Michael Shannon) is introduced to what became his life's grisly work by mobster Roy DeMeo (Ray Liotta). Before his execution in the early 1980s, DeMeo was a particularly brutal underboss of the Gambino family, dealing in loan-sharking, porn, prostitution and drugs. That's some dirty business, and Kuklinski became one of DeMeo's must trusted hands.
As mob movies go, The Iceman finds the right tone and pounds on it consistently. There's no extra notoriety gained as Kuklinski stays on the job, and nobody's living in a giant South Beach mansion snorting mountains of coke. This is a blue-collar crime story spread over the course of a few decades. These are the low rungs on the Mafia ladder, and there's not much glamour to go around.
Kuklinski has a family in suburban New Jersey, and he's determined to put his daughters through private school and give them a better life. His wife (Winona Ryder) has zero idea what he does for a living, thinking instead that he's in currency exchange. Kuklinski—neither in this portrayal nor in his subsequent prison interviews—comes across as a very good actor, so how he convinced his family he was a financial high roller for so long is kind of a mystery.
Indeed, that's the part of The Iceman that could use a little more investigation. As it stands (and as is becoming all too familiar), the structure of this biopic feels like a re-created Wikipedia entry: It's full of top-level information you can find from just about any source. But it would be great to go beneath the surface a bit, find out what makes this monster tick and showcase the fallout his life had on those closest to him.
Even without that extra kicker, The Iceman is still a taut, tense film with solid performances. We expect Michael Shannon to put on a show these days, thanks to his work in Take Shelter and Revolutionary Road. Ryder is maybe trying too hard. She really shines in the rare scenes of marital strife but she doesn't truly stand out the rest of the way.
One real surprise is the work of Chris Evans, who holds the distinction of being the only actor to star as two separate Marvel Comics heroes—he's Captain America, and who could forget his Johnny Torch in Fantastic Four?
Rhetorical questions aside, Evans brings a genuine creepiness to a serial killer known as Mr. Freezy, another contract killer who froze the bodies of his victims for months before disposing of them, hoping to erase his tracks. His cover—as well as his getaway car and storage center—is an ice cream truck. Somehow or other, Evans manages to bring some levity to the story with this guy, and he and Shannon have terrific scenes together.
If nothing else, The Iceman is worth watching for Shannon, who is rounding into one of our more reliable character actors. He's got good range. And because his looks are, shall we say, nonclassical (very tall, gangly, not a matinee idol), he can take us places other actors can't. That's why, as a character study, this film is a little flat. Forced to take a macro view of Richard Kuklinski's astounding number of kills, it loses the chance to zoom in on what's behind them all as well the opportunity to use Michael Shannon to find an incredibly dark corner of humanity we don't want to visit.