The Iceman Review
The MovieIn late 1986 the law finally caught up with one of the East Coast Mob's most feared hitmen, but not before he'd killed at least 100 people. Notorious for the peculiar way that he'd freeze his victims then dump their bodies so that a time of death couldn't be established (hence the titular nickname), Richard Kuklinski was one of three sons of a Polish migrant, all of whom were raised (and abused) in a fiercely Catholic home environment. Having first taken a life as a teenager, his talent for death soon caught the attention of Brooklyn mobster Roy DeMeo, who drafted in Kuklinski as one of his chief enforcers. But in the mid-1960s Richard had also caught the eye of a local girl, Barbara Pedrici (changed to Deborah Pellicotti for the film), and so his dichotomous life began to take shape, playing the loving husband and father at home but becoming a stone-cold killer as soon as he stepped outside the front door. It is this relationship, up until his arrest, which is our window into the world of The Iceman.
Ariel Vroman's direction is not fussy or overly complicated, staging scenes with multiple coverage which allows for a flowing sense of pace and continuity when cut together. He relies solely on his production design to evoke the look and feel of the period, steering clear of a Scorsese-style jukebox soundtrack; there are a few songs but they're employed in a strictly diegetic manner. That and the lack of flashy camera work tends to ground the story, as we're seeing it play out on its own merits rather than rocking along to a Stones classic or being amazed by a 3-minute long Steadicam shot. And neither does it overplay the herky-jerky documentary fashion that passes for realism these days. Vroman and his DoP Bobby Bukowski were content to use a more traditional interplay of light and dark, alternating the look of the film between the cold light of day and various smokey back rooms, dark alleyways, gloomy pool halls and so on. That's not to say that there isn't a place for more ostentatious camera work, as certain directors have made a career out of it, but this story simply doesn't need any window dressing. Kuklinski's powerful presence is more than enough.
Kuklinski is realised by Michael Shannon, the actor's actor who has finally cracked the big time, and he's utterly superb. His craggy visage and hulking build may have been enough on their own to sell the character, but Shannon always goes deeper, giving the character a rock-solid emotional foundation which allows him to project a sense of how utterly cold and deadly this man is. All he has to do is narrow his eyes and you know someone isn't going to survive until the end of the reel! Winona Ryder was drafted in to play Deborah after Maggie Gyllenhaal dropped out, and she tackles it in her typical wide-eyed style. Likewise, Chris Evans was parachuted in to cover for another absentee (James Franco, who still gets a small cameo). Here he's Robert Pronge, Kuklinski's ice-cream-selling partner in crime (a.k.a. 'Mr Freezy') who taught him some tricks of the trade. Evans' performance is nicely matter-of-fact, dealing with dismembered bodies as if he were at the supermarket deli counter chopping up some meat. Having Ray Liotta as a gangster might seem clichéd, and I guess it is, but he's playing a boss rather than a bum and so he presents Roy DeMeo as a man burdened by his underlings, which is a change of tack at least. Plenty of famous faces pop up in smaller roles, like David Schwimmer as a low-level DeMeo associate, Steven Dorff as Kuklinski's younger brother (who raped and murdered a 12-year-old girl) and Robert Davi as an emissary from the bigger bosses.
The script does the necessary to shrink a few decades into a movie-length narrative, i.e. it compresses time and place, fabricates some events and relocates others, removes some people completely or folds them into other characters etc. (Even 'Mr Freezy' is so-called because of a rights issue, as Pronge's real-life sobriquet of 'Mister Softee' fell foul of licensing problems.) It certainly tells a compelling tale, as Kuklinski struggles to keep the darkness of his working day separate from his domestic life, but the biggest flaw of the film is that it tries too hard to maintain some shred of sympathy for Kuklinski by glossing over the beatings he would give his wife. Yes, he had a rule to not kill women in his line of work, but he certainly didn't have a rule about not hurting them, and it's vaguely insulting that the makers of the film thought that the audience wouldn't be able to distinguish between those two facets of his character. I also feel that it never quite gets to the core of his demons, paying lip service to his troubled childhood with a dollop of Catholic guilt laid over the top. Other than that, The Iceman is a chilling (no pun intended) glimpse into the life of a world-class sociopath.
The DiscLionsgate's Blu-ray is locked to region B and has no forced trailers, booting straight to the main menu after the obligatory studio logo. Audio and subtitle options are English only.
The Iceman was shot digitally on the Arri Alexa Plus and finished on a 2K DI. Framed at 1.78, the picture is exceedingly clean, with barely a hint of grain or noise throughout. Fine detail is razor sharp, and there's no sign of overt edge enhancement. Colour is heavily desaturated, dialing down the primaries to leave behind a downbeat image that seems to be perpetually overcast, aside from the warmer tones that overlay scenes featuring Kuklinski's marital life. Black levels are curiously elevated, so instead of rich blacks most darker shots are awash with a greyish murk, and whether this was intended or simply an issue with the mastering (i.e. it's too bright) I honestly don't know. The contrast range is quite muted as a result, with drab daylight exteriors and a chronic lack of shadow detail, giving the movie a flat look in general. This AVC encode has some noticeable banding on gradations of light and dark during certain scenes, which is an unfortunate hallmark of other Lionsgate discs that I've looked at recently.
The lossless DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio is not the most athletic mix in terms of utilising the whole sound field, but the movie is a dialogue-driven character piece so that was to be expected. Dialogue is crisp and intelligible for the most part, Shannon's portentous delivery aside. Whenever the rears and LFE are engaged they're used with precision, allowing for splashes of atmospheric embellishment and smoothly integrated bass.
There's a handful of extras, mainly consisting of EPK interviews. There's an 8 minute 'Behind the Scenes' featurette which has on-set footage and talking heads with the director, producer and Shannon, Ryder and Evans. The same quintet get separate interview segments, viewable separately or as a 'play all' feature, running 29 minutes in total. It's all generic PR fluff that isn't worth bothering with, though you do see how hesitant and halting Michael Shannon is in real life, compared to the glowering monster that he expertly portrays in the film.
OverallThe Iceman is a competent crime drama that features some excellent performances, but it lacks the strength of will to get to the centre of Richard Kuklinski's troubled soul. Still, some people might argue that he never had one. Lionsgate's disc has middling video quality and solid audio, and is feebly supported by some bland press-kit extras. Worth a rental if you're a genre fan or if you want to see the Hollywood take on Kuklinski's grisly exploits.
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