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Review: ‘The Iceman’

Showcase For Actor Michael Shannon

Above: Michael Shannon stars as real life killer Richard Kuklinski in "The Iceman."

The Iceman” (opened May 17 at Landmark’s Hillcrest Cinemas) is based on real life contract killer Richard Kuklinski. The film is a showcase for actor Michael Shannon.

Michael Shannon is not a great actor but when directed well in the right role he can deliver amazing performances. As the titular hitman, Shannon is like a massive, immovable object. His massive frame seems to anchor each scene as his rigid facial expression rarely ever responds to anything in his environment. The only thing that is guaranteed to set him off is a threat or offense to his family.

We meet Kuklinski (Michael Shannon) when he’s working in the porn biz helping to dub films and distribute them to the mob. A shakedown by the mob introduces him to Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta) and sets him on a course as an exclusive contract killer. Demeo immediately spots in him a coolness under pressure and a unflinching lack of fear. But Kuklinski has another side of his life, a family life with a wife (Winona Ryder) and two daughters, and for decades he kept the two completely separate. When he was arrested in 1986 for more than 100 murders, his family had no clue about his life as a killer-for-hire.

Writer/director Ariel Vromen lines up an offbeat cast for his film. Shannon is a solid performer but by no means an A-list star. And despite the film’s indie roots Vromen scores James Franco (“Oz Great and Powerful”), Chris Evans (“The Avengers”), Ray Liotta (“Goodfellas”), David Schwimmer (“Friends”), Stephen Dorff, and Winona Ryder. It feels a little like stunt casting, especially with Evans and Schwimmer buried under bad wigs. But Shannon’s rock of Gibraltar performance anchors the film and keeps us riveted.

Vromen doesn’t seem particularly interested in giving us insight into what makes a ruthless killer. He inserts one quick flashback of a brutal beating from his father and one scene with his incarcerated brother to suggest that some early abuse sent both boys down a violent path. But that’s about it. Instead, Vromen seems more interested in documenting the stranger than fiction life of Kuklinski. He does provide some insider information on what it takes to be a killer for the mob.

The film is free of any stylistic flourishes. Vromen and his tech team deliver a visually restrained and well-mounted production. He enjoys the contrast of the brutality of Kuklinski’s work and the matter of factness of the killings and later the disposal of the bodies. Some of the murders prove all the more shocking for their abruptness and casually straightforward style of presenting them.

“The Iceman” (rated R for strong violence, pervasive language and some sexual content) is a disturbing and compellingly watchable portrait of a killer with no remorse.

And if you like Shannon, I urge you to watch this hilarious Funny or Die video of him reading the “Insane Letter” of a sorority president to her sisters.

Companion viewing: “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer,” “The Mechanic” (Charles Bronson one), “Leon: The Professional”

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