In choosing the right kind of actor to play Richard Kuklinski, the notorious hitman of the ’60s and ’70s known as “The Iceman,” the producers couldn’t picked a better man than Michael Shannon. Long though his resume is, it’s only recently that Mr. Shannon has received the kind of attention he deserves, from his stirring lead in “Take Shelter” to his turn on Boardwalk Empire.
Ten years ago the role might have gone to Ray Liotta, who turns up here as Roy Demeo, a mob middleman who threatens Kuklinski in the face with a gun, then hires him on the spot because of his unflinching “iceman” qualities. Demeo has hired well, and he doesn’t really know it. We know that Kuklinski is the sort of man who will kill another man over a pool game. He’ll kill because he is told and paid to do so; he doesn’t enjoy it so much as he respects his own skills.
But he has ethics, this Kuklinski. He doesn’t kill kids or women. And so, like many a hitman film, things start to go downhill when he leaves a witness. That’s when he runs into Mr. Freezy, played under greasy hair and goatee by Chris Evans, who’s even more amoral. Mr. Freezy has cyanide to spare, and enjoys disposing of his victims in a freezer case and homemade abattoir.
At the same time, Kuklinski successfully raises a family — Winona Ryder plays his wife — with two daughters, who know nothing of his job except that he’s in “currency exchange.” In a way he is, but there’s a corpse involved.
“The Iceman” features enjoyable cameos by James Franco as a pornographer who meets a sudden end, David Schwimmer and John Ventimiglia (chef Arnie on “The Sopranos”) as Demeo’s soldiers (the former sporting an awful handlebar mustache); and Stephen Dorff as Kuklinski’s brother, equally murderous but much better at getting caught. The script nods towards the Kuklinski’s violent and abusive household — there’s a quick flashback to the boys being beaten — but the film drops this psychoanalysis as soon as it picks it up. Beatings or no, the film says, Kuklinski is perhaps just evil.
The film is directed by Ariel Vromen, who has two little-seen features under his belt, and shot by Bobby Bukowski in a limited assortment of ochres, browns, slime green and such. There’s been some loving attention to detail to bring back to life the filth and gunk of 1970s Times Square, and there’s much striving to pack on the patina of the great films of that era: “Godfather,” “The French Connection,” “Taxi Driver.”
The film never really gets past good and well-made. The plot is shopworn, found in any number of (much better) movies like “Le Samourai” “Branded to Kill” and “Donnie Brasco.” Mr. Shannon makes it worthwhile. He’s a fascinating presence on screen — electric. Apart from a psychotic love for his family unit, he doesn’t really have a redeeming feature. He’s good at his job and that job is murder. And so we keep watching him.
* * *
Starring: Michael Shannon, Winona Ryder, James Franco, Ray Liotta
Length: 105 minutes
Rating: R for strong violence, pervasive language and some sexual content
Playing at: Paseo Nuevo