DVD review: The Iceman

posted at 2:01 pm on September 8, 2013 by Ed Morrissey

Imagine being married to a man for half of your life who you believe to have worked himself up from blue-collar roots to white-collar investment and currency-exchange work.  You’ve raised two daughters, live comfortably in the suburbs, and have what seems to be a normal life … until you find out that he’s a hit man for the Mafia. What happens when your world comes crashing down?

That might have made a very interesting film, and that is how The Iceman got marketed.  The film, based on the actual story of Richard “The Iceman” Kuklinski, instead focuses on the sociopathic Kuklinski’s career in the rackets as a one-man Murder Inc, whose only purported principle is that he won’t kill women and children.  Kuklinski did a series of interviews with HBO in the last years of his life, captured in oddly mundane but chilling documentaries which went a long way toward proving the point about the banality of evil.

That’s part of the problem with The Iceman, too.  By focusing on Kuklinski rather than his family, we see a mainly stolid Kuklinksi waltz through a series of mob hits with no impression that it matters much to him — a very accurate portrayal, as the Iceman documentaries showed, but it’s numbing and disengaging to watch (not to mention depressing and dismaying).  Michael Shannon is brilliant as Kuklinski, especially at those few moments of conflict between his work and his family life, but the problem is the character and not the actor.  Banality wears thin, even with gritty and realistic action sequences to break it up.

Unfortunately, Winona Ryder gets wasted (ahem – figuratively speaking) in the role of Kuklinski’s wife Deborah, who is only seen in her benighted, illusory suburban life, except for a non-speaking court sequence at the end.  Had we seen somewhat less of the Iceman’s real work — and less of the complicated mess of mob politics at play, which has little to do with the central conflict in Kuklinski’s life — the film could have spent a lot more time on Deborah and her daughters. How did she come to terms with her earlier life as the unsuspecting spouse of a serial killer? How did she and her daughters cope with the consequences? Despite a set-up promising some exploration of those issues, we get nothing but the penultimate court sequence.  That doesn’t leave much for Ryder than adoring-wife vignettes and a couple of maybe-something’s-wrong sequences that don’t appear to register with her until Kuklinski’s arrest, which is also apparently accurate with real life.  It also doesn’t leave much for emotional connections for the audience.

As a character study, though, The Iceman is certainly worth watching, if for nothing more than Shannon’s performance.  Another surprise is action-film star Chris Evans (Fantastic Four) as Mr. Freezy, based on real-life hitman Robert “Mr. Softee” Prongay, who fits right into the gritty tenor of the film.  Ray Liotta and Robert Davi contribute good performances, as does David Schwimmer as Liotta’s incompetent protege.  James Franco and Stephen Dorff appear in cameos, and John Ventimiglia does well as a hotheaded lieutenant of Liotta’s.  It works in its way as a period piece, as a noirish throwback to morally ambiguous action films of the 1970s.  Interestingly, the sequences with the Kuklinksi family have a orange-sepia color tone that’s familiar to anyone who took snapshots in that period, with the paper of the era having trouble fixing developed color properly. It’s a subtle but noticeable attempt to humanize the Kuklinksis, and shouldn’t go unremarked.

After a desultory run at the box office this spring — a strange time of the year to release this kind of film — The Iceman just hit the Blu-Ray/DVD market.  On the four-point Hot Air rating scale for BR/DVD releases, I’d give this a 2 — or a 3 for fans of Shannon and/or gritty and ambiguous 1970s-style gangster films, a genre that seems to be gaining traction in Hollywood these days:

  • 4 – Buy the Blu-Ray/DVD
  • 3 – Worth a rental price or pay-per-view
  • 2 – Wait for it to come on a TV channel you already get
  • 1 – Avoid at all costs

The Iceman is rated R, with strong language, realistic violence, and sexual content.  It’s not appropriate at all for children or teens.


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This reminds me of Obama living peacefully as Kenyan royalty while he was in school.

faraway on September 8, 2013 at 2:25 PM

This was done as a Law & Order episode years back, right?

Shy Guy on September 8, 2013 at 2:33 PM

Eh. Like with nazi war criminals, I think the families are more often than not bent. They tend to make excuses or go in denial or try to profit from the murders.

Blake on September 8, 2013 at 2:37 PM

This was done as a Law & Order episode years back, right?

Shy Guy on September 8, 2013 at 2:33 PM

My favorite was when some loud mouth daughter got her father the serial rapist/murderer out of prison. As to be expected, little girls started turning up dead. Still, she defends her father. Finally, she comes home early from work and finds dear old dad on top of her 8 year old daughter. She picks up a bat kept in the hallway, and BAM! Hit a home run. The end.

Blake on September 8, 2013 at 2:41 PM

Good review Ed. I see that it is available to stream on Amazon. Maybe I’ll check it out later. I’m a big Michael Shannon fan. Did anyone ever see him in ‘The Missing Person’? It’s a great, often darkly hilarious, homage to gumshoe film noir. It gets a bit slow in the end, but overall it’s very good.

WhatSlushfund on September 8, 2013 at 3:26 PM

Cold blooded killer, but I don’t think he had anything to do with Jimmy Hoffa’s murder. We’ll probably never know how many he really killed.

rickv404 on September 8, 2013 at 3:27 PM

Conservatives should try to avoid giving their money to Hollywood douchebags. Hollywood douchebags just end up donating that money to politicians who will raise your taxes and take away your civil rights.

Kohath on September 8, 2013 at 3:57 PM

Test.

avagreen on September 8, 2013 at 5:13 PM

Tried to post a review. Guess the link wasn’t allowed.

Saw this last week or so on Dish. He presented a more human person than the cold-blooded killer I saw in an interview several years ago.

He was incredibly cruel to humans and animals I couldn’t believe how clueless his wife had been.

He died in prison….in 2006?

Richard Kuklinski died of unknown causes in Trenton, New Jersey at the age of 70. Although authorities say they believe he died of natural causes, the timing of his death is considered suspicious by some, as he was scheduled to testify that he had killed a New Jersey police officer in the 1980s on the orders of former Gambino crime family underboss Sammy Gravano. A few days after Kuklinksi’s death, prosecutors dropped all charges against Gravano, saying that without the hit man’s testimony they had insufficient evidence to continue.

avagreen on September 8, 2013 at 5:17 PM

Let’s try this link”: http://truecrimecases.blogspot.com/2012/08/the-story-of-richard-kuklinski-iceman.html

avagreen on September 8, 2013 at 5:22 PM

Just found this:

Brigitte Höss, circled, has avoided talking about her shameful family secret for almost her entire life and maintains that her father ‘was the nicest man in the world.’ She was one of five children raised by Rudolf Höss and his wife next to the notorious Nazi death camp Auschwitz, top right. Her father, bottom right, was hanged after pleading guilty to killing more than one million Jews. She escaped Germany and worked briefly as a model for the Balenciaga fashion house in Madrid before moving to Washington DC. There she worked for a Jewish woman who ran a fashion boutique. Now 80, she is dying of cancer and has rarely spoken of her secret past

http://goo.gl/iugaqv

Blake on September 8, 2013 at 7:45 PM

I read the book for an abnormal psychology class and did a paper on him in the context of “Nature vs. Nurture.” What struck me most about the Iceman had nothing to do with Nature vs. Nurture, it had to do with pure evil; in that some people believe in guardian angles, it was as if he had some sort of demonic guardian (fallen) angel. Several times, especially early on, he should have been caught, but against all odds he wasn’t. Also, in how he found new ways to kill, including finding Mr. Softy who taught him the use of poisons. Another time while hunting he spied a cave and noted rat foot prints in the snow. To make a long story short, he would use the cave to have the rats eat his victims alive! He would charge extra to have a time-lapse film made to the process. Pure evil.
Don’t believe for a second his family life was normal, it wasn’t. He basically kidnapped his wife by imposing himself on her, and basically ready to kill any suitor that came her way, including in a perverse way his own son. He was jealous of any man that had her affection, he was so worried that he was going to hurt/kill his own son that while at the dinner table he literally knocked himself out so he would not hurt his own boy.
I suggest reading the book The Iceman, like most books, it is so much better than the movie.

JimmyGee on September 8, 2013 at 9:19 PM

Yeah, I recently saw this as well. Had high hopes but it was pretty *meh* considering how the videotaped interviews were.

The actor portraying him did a good job based on the interviews anyway but the film just lacked something.

Link to the interviews:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QXgi72W2H7U

RedNewEnglander on September 9, 2013 at 12:01 AM

Ok, just watched it.

Kind of sucked. My main issue is that it didn’t portray the real guy accurately. They made it seem like he was a nice family man who just happened to be in the mob. The fact is that the dude was a stone-cold killer and the mob had nothing to do with that.

If you like mob movies (and I do) on a five-star scale, I’d give it a three as opposed to a two.

Purely as a mob movie, Shannon’s deadpan style could have worked well enough for the character. But again, he should have played the actual guy. If they wanted to make this kind of a ‘married to the mob’ story, they should have just loosely based it on this guy but changed the names around and portray it as an original story rather than try to present it as the definitive documenting of this particular guy.

Oh yeah, and where were the rats??

Winona’s version of an NJ accent was her usual weak tea.

While I appreciate his effort at breaking type, David Schwimmer seemed, to put it mildly, less than believable in his role.

I liked that a Derringer was used. I love those guns. I gotta get one. (Shout-out to Bond Arms)

In my opinion, it’s really Ray Liotta’s movie though. He may be one of the most under-utilized actors in Hollywood. I just don’t think they get him.

When it comes to mob flicks, Good Fellas still takes the prize.

Oh yeah, and Hollywood needs to start coming up with some Cosa Nostra flicks from more current days. It’s not like this activity has gone away.

WhatSlushfund on September 9, 2013 at 12:33 AM

Conservatives should try to avoid giving their money to Hollywood douchebags. Hollywood douchebags just end up donating that money to politicians who will raise your taxes and take away your civil rights.

Kohath on September 8, 2013 at 3:57 PM

Funny, I was thinking the same thing about most “conservative politicians”.

Sammo21 on September 9, 2013 at 8:17 AM

Here is what I don’t get. The movie is 75% fiction, for the most part total BS. His life, while being pure evil, was morbidly faciniating! It did not need all the dramatic crap which never happened. One man threatened his family, and he was quckly dispatched by the Iceman. For the most part, the MOB feared him.

JimmyGee on September 9, 2013 at 11:56 AM

And now for something completely different. I am not much into horror flicks, but one of the most frightning movies (at least to me) was the early eighties “The Entity” with Barbra Hersey. It was based on a documented true story of an entity that followed a woman whenever and wherever she moved. In the movie they set up a stage and create a replica of her apartment in the colllege gym. They had large vats of liquid nitrogen to trap the entity (since all matter stops moving the closer to absolutre zero you get). The climax is when they trap the entity for a few seconds in the liquid nitrogen. I would love to see the movie remade with modern CGI.

JimmyGee on September 9, 2013 at 12:20 PM