Michael Shannon turns “The Iceman” into intriguing tale

September 20th, 2012

“Look at this guy,” Roy DeMeo (Ray Liotta) mutters in something akin to wonder, as he aims a revolver right at the expressionless face of Richard Kuklinski (Michael Shannon). “As cold as ice.”

We concur with that assessment. That cold, steely look is perhaps the most intriguing effect of “The Iceman.” In the earlier moments, where we see Kuklinski in the face of danger and giving it that deadly impassive stare, we get that tingle. This is an interesting character to watch – and one gangster character that’s actually worthy of following around for two hours.

Based on the true story of mafia hitman Richard Kuklinski, we follow Richard from when he first meets the woman who will become his wife (Winona Ryder) to when he comes across rabid mob boss Roy DeMeo (Ray Liotta) to when he begins a life of murder under contract for DeMeo and a life of crime that is rumored to have claimed the lives of over 100 people. Along the way, Kuklinski raises a family, while doing his job, partners up with fellow killer Mr. Softee (an unrecognizable and hilarious Chris Evans) and tries to be everything his jailed rapist brother (Stephen Dorff) isn’t. But as we should expect from a gangster movie, things don’t go smoothly for Kuklinski in the end.

What makes the film as good as it is comes down to the casting of the indelible Michael Shannon. Sometimes, all you need is one key element done right to turn something good into something great. There is literally no one better for this part. The man can ooze intensity and menace with little more than a glare. If anyone can juggle the roles of serial killer and family man and make it work, it’s Shannon. He effortlessly turns this above-average gangster biopic into something vastly more gripping than it seems possible.

“The Iceman” is the first big project for writer/director Ariel Vromen. He’s confident in his craft and knows how to tell and show a story, and I really have no serious complaints about his work. While the film is, overall, not particularly different from other films like it, there are several key decisions that Vromen made that show a deeper talent. The writing and directing is compelling enough that we never feel like we’re watching a point-A-to-point-B style biopic, and the thought put into it makes it rarely feel hackneyed or predictable. It plays by the rules of its genre without becoming uninteresting, which is in and of itself quite a feat. I was never bored, and I was always interested in just what Kuklinski was going to do next.

As with most solid gangster films, “The Iceman” has its memorable scenes. There’s enough juicy material to sate even the most demanding of viewers. There are three moments in the film that gave me goosebumps in how awesome and fresh they were. The first dealt with the moment Roy DeMeo tries to test Kuklinski and see if he has what it takes to follow orders. The second is Kuklinski’s visit to a local pervert (a fun little cameo by James Franco). The third, which is by far my favorite, shows Kuklinski at his most fierce, savagely yelling and tearing apart the family kitchen when he begins to realize just how caged he really is. These three scenes alone make this film rise above most of its contemporaries and showcase Shannon as a force of nature. I couldn’t get enough of him. He’s absolutely breathtaking to watch. If the movie itself was a tad more original or sophisticated in its execution (like Scorsese’s work), Shannon may have had a real shot at another Oscar nod to join his previous nomination for “Revolutionary Road.”

It’s been a while since we’ve had a superior gangster flick. One thing I can say in all certainty is “The Iceman” is my favorite non-iconic gangster movie (which excludes anything from Scorsese or Coppola). To put it in more recent terms, it’s better than “Public Enemies” and “Kill the Irishman.” While the film itself may come across as trite or formulaic at times, it never loses sight of its greatest asset in Michael Shannon. And, therefore, neither do we.