Its title and the gentle stress on Chris Evans in a supporting role notwithstanding, The Iceman is in no way another comics spinoff. Instead it’s a merely adequate mob thriller — another type of movie you reasonably but wrongly thought had become exhausted by now.
Early on, Ray Liotta points a gun at Michael Shannon’s face and calls him cold as ice for not flinching. “Why do you act like you don’t give a shit?” Liotta even asks, as if on behalf of all of us who’ve ever wondered that about every macho mob-thriller asshole ever, but Shannon’s face remains impassive. That unanswered question is, unsatisfyingly, the essence of the movie, which director Ariel Vromen and co-writer Morgan Land adapted from the life story of actual mafia-affiliated serial killer Richard Kuklinski, here played as more or less an acting exercise for the towering, unchallenged Shannon. It’s all straight goombah-movie stuff: the tense loyalty tests, the murder montages, the business-is-business loose ends in need of ruthless tying up, the escalating threats to family, and so on.
Shannon’s still a terrific and eccentric performer, with a piquant sort of anti-charisma that’s well worth building a gloomy movie around. (For better proof, rent Take Shelter.) But he’s let down by The Iceman’s surface-level view of a guy who sometimes was a sociopath. (He had a rule about not hurting women or children — so, you know, “honor.”) Failure to connect is of the essence here, but not in quite the right way. Maybe the problem has to do with the filmmakers’ apparent strategy for finding a dramatic shape: This happened, so here’s the movie about it, and because it’s one of these movies, here’s Ray Liotta for context. Of course Liotta seems perfectly content to have been type-cast; his whole hey, it’s what I do vibe makes him just about as agreeable as a mobster who points accusing guns in people’s faces possibly can be. But ultimately it’s not his movie.
Evans, too, seems happy to be here, scuffing up his mom-and-apple-pie image in the role of a scuzzy rival who becomes Kuklinski’s uneasy business partner. With hints of the familiar near-desperation that you see in franchise players “branching out,” his might be the highest-stakes performance in the film. But no, it’s not his movie either.
Another reason for the title is Kuklinski’s eventual habit of freezing his victims’ corpses to obscure their times of death. Otherwise, he was a devoted family man, with a wife (Winona Ryder), two daughters, and a lush patch of fashionably modulating facial hair, in suburban 1970s New Jersey. The wife, blissfully unaware that early in their courtship he cut a guy’s throat for insulting her honor, seemed pleased to have him for a provider, and maintained her blissful unawareness for many years.
Where Shannon gets free rein, Ryder’s performance seems strangely hampered, but it’s hard to tell whether that’s from the limits of her range or from those of the material. Not that you’ll ever be shaking your fist and shouting, “Damn you, The Iceman, you could’ve been such a great Winona Ryder vehicle; if only, if only!” Goombah-movie wives never seem to get a fair deal. Also, some perfunctory backstory is supplied during a scene in which Kuklinski visits his brother (Stephen Dorff) in prison, and there are standout appearances by David Schwimmer and James Franco which serve mostly to encourage your suspicion that they won’t end well.
All the while Shannon goes icily about his lethal business. Tension is taken for granted, which tends to undermine its effectiveness as tension. In one promisingly unconventional if very possibly fact-based touch, Vromen proffers a deathless cat as harbinger of climactic unraveling. But that’s way late in the game. Otherwise, The Iceman is a film in which scenes of killers nonchalantly butchering human cadavers or blowing cyanide in people’s eyes somehow register less strongly than the meticulous design of Michael Shannon’s shapeshifting goatee.
As for the rest of him, well, at least he’ll get to play a proper comic-book villain, in Man of Steel, later this summer.