Thursday, May 16, 2013

An icy hit man stalks his prey

New Jersey-based hit man Richard Kuklinski reportedly killed more than 100 people during his career as an assassin so cold-blooded, he was called The Iceman. We've seen a lot of movies that glamorize criminal life and plenty that go for hard-core grit. The Iceman -- which tells Kuklinski's story -- falls squarely into the latter category, and were it not for the work of Michael Shannon, the movie might have been another bit of cinematic slumming, one more foray into society's lower depths.

But Shannon, who's carving out a career playing men of intensity and weirdness, brings frightening credibility to the role of a killer who murdered as part of his routine and then went home to his wife (Winona Ryder) and two daughters. Let's just say Richie -- as his cronies referred to him -- must have been good at compartmentalizing.

Director Ariel Vroment surely knew that he had struck gold with Shannon because he works hard to support a performance that creates its own tension and dread. If you're looking fully to understand a Polish-American killer who plied his trade for Italian mobsters, you'll probably have to look elsewhere. A half-hearted reference to abuse Kuklinski suffered at the hands of his father neither justifies nor explains a man who seems to feel that he needs neither justification nor explanation.

That's just what makes Richie so terrifying. Aside from a professed love for his family, he doesn't seem to feel much of anything.

Although the movie clearly belongs to Shannon, the rest of the cast keeps pace. Ryder has her best outing in some time as Richie's wife, Deborah. She sees Richie as a protector, the man who loves her and takes care of her. She doesn't push him too hard about his cover story. Kuklinski accounts for his suburban lifestyle by claiming to be a savvy currency trader.

We've seen Ray Liotta as a tough guy so many times, it's a little disappointing to find him playing that role again, although he's obviously good at it. Here, he's mobster Roy DeMeo, the man who elevates -- if that's the right word -- Kuklinski from his job in a lab that processes pirated porn films to the job of hit man. Roy asks Kuklilnski to audition for his new role by killing a bum, a task Richie carries out without much fuss.

James Franco is convincing in a small role as Marty Freeman, a man who has the misfortune of crossing paths with Kuklinski, and David Schwimmer has a nice turn as Josh Rosenthal, a long-standing friend of Ray's with a talent for getting his mobbed-up boss in trouble.

In a movie such as The Iceman , the look and feel of things can be every bit as important as plot. Cinematographer Bobby Bukowski sees New Jersey at its depressing worst, creating a downcast mood the movie seldom breaks.

Even turns of plot that might have been played for cheap ironies and chuckles pass without much winking humor.
Chris Evans, for example, plays killer Robert Pronge, a hit man with whom Kuklinski forms a seedy partnership when his boss no longer needs his services. Pronge's day job: He drives an ice cream truck. His nickname: Mister Softee.

The plot unfolds pretty much as you'd expect: Vroment laces the screen with double-crosses and betrayals that eventually tighten a noose around Kuklinski's increasingly vulnerable neck. He's desperate to find a way out of the box he's constructed for himself. At a certain point, his occupation and his private life seem destined to collide.

Shannon's chilling performance keeps the movie's wheels spinning. He presents Richie in all of his icy, terrifying stature. But Richie's different than a lot of movie gangsters: He's one cold-blooded devil who never begs for sympathy.

No comments: