Do you know the real story of Richard Kuklinski, one of the most ruthless contract killers our country has ever seen? Being a Jersey boy living not even a thirty minute drive from New York City, I do, so to say all these events went down in my backyard is an understatement. Sure, he was behind bars before I was even born, but his legacy lived far past his free life. But if seeing these historic events recreated (albeit through Hollywood’s touch) wasn’t enough, none other than heavyweight actor Michael Shannon portrays Kuklinski – a match made in casting heaven. Thankfully, Ariel Vromen’s “based on a true story” film about Richard Kuklinski, The Iceman, was every bit as tantalizing of a crime drama I could ask for, representing one of my favorite movies of the year so far.
So for those of you in the dark on who Richard Kuklinski (Michael Shannon) actually is, I assume you’ve gathered already he was a feared hitman whose career spanned from around 1948-1986, in which he claimed to have killed over 100 victims. Standing at an intimidating six foot four and weighing around 300 pounds in real life, Kuklinski earned the nickname “The Iceman” for the coldhearted manner in which he was able to dispatch of victims without a care in the world (among other reasons). Basically, if you saw Kuklinski, he represented the Grim Reaper.
Vromen’s film dates back to the time he meets his wife Deborah (Winona Ryder), who in real life was named Barbara, and spans his entire criminal career until being arrested in 1986. This includes his relationship with Roy DeMeo (Ray Liotta), being influenced by hitman Robert “Mister Softee” Pronge (Chris Evans), and of course his most violent work-related moments.
Right off the bat I have to talk about the absolutely perfect casting of virtually every role. Sure, snagging tough guy Robert Davi and recurring cinema gangster Ray Liotta were undoubtedly no-brainer decisions, because each actor proves their reputation yet again, but going outside the box for a few roles also paid off in spades.
Look at David Schwimmer for example, tasked to play Roy DeMeo’s faithful henchman Josh Rosenthal – a seedy, dirty, and mustachioed criminal you could never picture Ross from Friends portraying in a million years. The thing is though, he absolutely knocks it out of the park, and trades his nice guy image for some valuable screen time as a scumbag.
On the other hand, Chris Evans and Winona Ryder are absolutely still big prime-time names, but their inclusion probably raised eyebrows initially for their own separate reasons. In Ryder’s case, she hasn’t been all that prevalent recently, and when she has it’s been for less serious roles (sans Black Swan), but playing Kuklinski’s wife did wonders to erase that from my memory. Terrified of her husband yet full of love, Ryder plays off Michael Shannon’s strong emotions with womanly grace and an absolutely bombshell physical attraction. She’s sexy in an entirely homely and nurturing way, but also flashes the claws when needed. Meeeooow.
Evans on the other hand didn’t really go out of his comfort zone, bringing his quirky and animated personality to fellow hitman “Mister Softee,” but using his persona in a more serious film makes such an attitude more powerful. Chris Evans is one of the only actors who can actually make us enjoy the company of a serial killer (contract killer, whatever) because he’s funny, charming, witty – but then completely jerk our perceptions out from under us like a rug when shown celebrating Christmas.
But Michael Shannon – wow. Is there anyone in Hollywood who can embody such a dark, tormented soul and deliver a disturbingly strong emotional performance like he can? No. The answer is an emphatic no. Shannon’s horrifyingly dead face and visibly cold heart pierce like daggers, his rage has the fury of 1,000 suns, and his badassery knows no bounds. Shannon carries out Kuklinski’s hits just as I’d imagine someone nicknamed “The Iceman” would, calling upon his scene with James Franco (oh yeah, he’s in this too) as the “be all, end all” example of why you would never want to cross this hitman. For such a simply summed up character, Shannon brings intensifying depth and range which make the Kuklinski character even more human than the real person probably was. Michael Shannon deserves some serious praise for his part in The Iceman, a film which saw one man lift an entire production to greater heights.
Without proper production all those great performances would have been lost though, in which case I have to pay my respects to director Ariel Vromen for creating an enjoyable biopic that was both parts entertaining and revealing. Vromen made sure to incorporate powerful and screen grabbing moments Kuklinski himself recalled in numerous interviews, again pointing to his run-in with James Franco’s character as a gut-wrenching scene which defined Shannon as The Iceman. Vromen makes us forget The Iceman is based on a true story by building an almost storybook experience out of it, made only more interesting when you know a thing or two about Kuklinski himself.
The Iceman will send shivers down your spine, strike fear into your hearts, and make you fall in love with Michael Shannon’s unparalleled on-screen presence all over again as he portrays none other than a stone-faced mob hitman. You have to commend Vromen for taking a true story and doctoring it up with enough glitzy style and moving drama to avoid becoming just another ho-hum biographical story, but again that couldn’t have been achieved without such a monstrously talented cast. Trust me, Vroman’s film will hypnotize you with what will most likely be one of the year’s best crime thrillers, then put two bullets right between your eyes to lay you down for the count – it packs that much of a knockout blow.
Even though we all knew Michael Shannon would be perfect as Richard Kuklinski, he still manages to mesmerize audiences like we're discovering his unparalleled acting chops all over again.