For better or worse, actor Michael Shannon's intensity and commitment to finding humanity in broken, brooding characters has helped typecast him in unpredictable, "heavy" roles - a possible modern equivalent of Christopher Walken's off-kilter performances. The Iceman is one of Mr. Shannon's increasingly visible lead roles in independent productions, and the depth of talent Israeli director Ariel Vromen managed to attract to the cast of his modest gangster picture - Winona Ryder, Ray Liotta, James Franco, Chris Evans, David Schwimmer - has no doubt been helped by his presence. But that is exactly why it's a shame that there's not much else to recommend this narrative retelling of the true story of New Jersey hitman Richard Kuklinski, following on from Jim Thebaut's HBO documentary and Anthony Bruno's book that recounted the striking tale.

     Kuklinski hid his true trade from his family and friends for 20 years, initially stating he worked for Disney's East Coast offices and eventually passing himself as a financial adviser and trader, all while becoming one of the most lethal Mob killers of all. Mr. Vromen and his co-writer Morgan Land posit Kuklinski as a devoted family man, who would go to any length to give his wife (played here by a sympathetic Winona Ryder) and two daughters the stability he himself never got from his violent Polish father, and who did his best to keep the dark, violent side he knew he had from them. Mr. Vromen is also interested in playing up the mythic side of the classic American gangster movie. While Mr. Shannon plays Kuklinski as a working-class man who is doing a job like any other to put money on the family table, the director can't resist structuring The Iceman as a small-time gangster saga, the period settings (1970s and 1980s) and temporal telescoping suggesting this could be a modest, low-key Goodfellas following the hitman's rise and fall.

     Yet, there's a basic disconnect between the genre trappings Mr. Vromen can't help but visibly emulate, and the self-contained, introspective nature of Kuklinski as brilliantly projected by Mr. Shannon. Also, both for the good and the bad, the film leaves deliberately out any attempt at easy psychologising, hinting only at the past in a very strong scene where Kuklinski visits his imprisoned brother Joey (Stephen Dorff) in jail. The approach allows the actor to nuance the character richly, but means the director has to play up the criminal aspects of the plot to make up for what isn't there; the run-of-the-mill structuring and plotting eventually end up dragging the film down, away from the intense character study that the film could have been and towards a generally anonymous gangster picture. It's another quiet triumph for Mr. Shannon, sadly wasted in the film's functional handling, episodic plot and rote music score; in trying to fit too much into one single film, Mr. Vromen may have done his fascinating true story a disservice.

Cast: Michael Shannon, Winona Ryder, Ray Liotta, Chris Evans, James Franco, David Schwimmer, Robert Davi, John Ventimiglia, Danny R. Abeckaser, Ryan O'Nan, Stephen Dorff
Director: Ariel Vromen
Screenplay: Morgan Land, Mr. Vromen, from the book by Anthony Bruno, The Iceman: The True Story of a Cold-Blooded Killer, and the documentary by Jim Thebaut, The Iceman Tapes: Conversations with a Killer
Cinematography: Bobby Bukowski  (colour)
Music: Haim Mazar
Designer: Nathan Amundson
Costumes: Donna Zakowska
Editor: Danny Rafic
Producers: Ehud Bleiberg, Mr. Vromen, Avi Lerner (Millennium Films, Bleiberg Entertainment)
USA/Israel, 2012, 105 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 11, Lisbon, July 26th 2013


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