Are we living in a post-gangster movie age? From the early talkies to the Oscar-winning success of “The Departed,” the genre has been ever-popular and responsible for seminal films from “White Heat” and “The Godfather” to “Goodfellas” and “Pulp Fiction.” But one struggles to think of a standout film in the genre since Scorsese's Oscar winner, with memorable mobsters now coming from television rather than the movies. We’re sure that someone will come along and give the form new life one of these days, but that reinvention of the wheel doesn’t come from Ariel Vroman’s “The Iceman,” which is decent enough, but fails to cover ground that hasn’t already been covered many times before.
Based on a true story, the film picks up with Richie Kuklinski (Michael Shannon) on a first date with girl-next-door type Deborah (Winona Ryder) in Jersey City in 1964. He’s not the most articulate guy around, but he manages to charm her enough that another date is planned, and the two are soon married. But Richie has secrets. For one, he’s told Deb that he dubs Disney movies for a living, when in fact he lends his voice to porno movies. For another, he’s got a murderous, rage-filled temper, brutally and professionally slitting the throat of a guy who’s insulted his wife-to-be’s honor.
Soon, issues with the porn business bring him to the attention of local mob boss Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta), who forces him into a lucrative life as an enforcer and hitman for his outfit, which seems to scratch Richie’s itch for bloodletting. But as the 1970s draw to a close, complications caused by Demeo’s impulsive lieutenant (David Schwimmer) cause Richie to go freelance, teaming up with a rival killer-for-hire, Robert "Freezy" Pronge (Chris Evans), at the risk of enraging his former employer.
The film is Vroman’s highest-profile to date, and as a director, he acquits him reasonably well. The period details are well managed, the film looks crisp and attractive (if a little uninspired) thanks to photography from Bobby Bukowski (“Rampart”), and his script (co-written by Morgan Land) is decent enough, on a scene-by-scene level.
On a macro level, however, things are more disappointing. Taking place over the course of about twenty years, it skips episodically through history (the shifts in time marked mainly by Shannon’s ever-changing facial hair) in a piecemeal fashion, failing to build up much momentum or suspense, or break away from familiar gangster tropes. The paranoid gang boss, the faltering lieutenant, the trusting, kept-in-the-dark wife, the gruesome headshots and throat-slittings in nondescript locations -- all are present and accounted for, and with your eyes closed, might as well have been copied and pasted from other films of the genre.
Maybe more damagingly, for a film that clearly fancies itself as a character study, it never really scratches the surface of its protagonist. By the end of the first reel, we realize that Kuklinski is a good, loving husband and father, who happens to have almost Jekyll & Hyde-ish rage issues that means he has little problem whacking strangers. But by the end of the film, that’s still pretty much all we know about him, and it means that while Shannon is as strong as ever as this giant bear of a man (he’s certainly never looked so intimidating on screen, which is saying something), it means he can never get his teeth into the part, and it feels like a retread of things that he’s done before.
The rest of the cast don’t have much more luck. Winona Ryder (who, it should be said, passes for being in her 20s in the early scenes with astonishing ease) is pretty good in a part that she’s never really played before, though there is nothing to it that countless actresses haven't done over the years. Ray Liotta is fine, but it’s a role that he could probably do in his sleep at this point – Robert Davi is better value in a cameo as a rival mob boss.
But others stand out more, and not in a good way. The star-reliant pre-sales financing of Millennium Films seems to have caused Vroman to go for the biggest names rather than the right actors. And so we get a monumentally miscast David Schwimmer as an ambitious Jewish gangster, never once looking like he could intimidate a drug dealer; we get one scene from Stephen Dorff as Kuklinski’s convict brother; we get Evans, playing Pronge as if it was a lost performance from his “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” character Lucas Lee; and we get another one-scener from a distracting, not-really-bothering (but fifth-billed) James Franco (who’d previously been attached to play Evans’ role, before going off to make a film about making a quilt with his face on it, or whatever he was doing instead) as a sleazy target.
There are some good instincts at work in the film from Vroman. It’s never a painful watch, more of a faintly dull, seen-it-all-before one. If nothing else, it’s evidence that these days, being based on a true story isn’t enough to elevate a film in a well-worn genre ahead of the pack. Fans of Shannon might get a kick out of seeing him front-and-center in a film like this, but for everyone else, it’s likely a rental at best. [C]