Skip to main content

Can I blow my nose now?

The Iceman
(2012)

It says something that Michael Shannon’s most sympathetic role in ages finds him playing a notorious hit man. Both in terms of typecasting and the favourable view director/co-writer Ariel Vromen takes of his subject. Those familiar with the case have found much to fault in this account of Richard Kuklinski’s activities, both factually and with regard to characterisation. But, leaving aside concerns over authenticity for a moment, this is a well-crafted, well-performed and engrossing piece of work. Having just witnessed the OTT glorification of all things ‘70s in American Hustle, The Iceman is refreshingly low key in its milieu. Instead, it’s the succession of sometimes spuriously recognisable faces popping up in a string of cameos that proves a sometimes distracting experience (a scenario that was likely all about favours and financing).


The end credits of the movie announce that it is based on The Iceman: The True Story of a Cold-Blooded Killer by Anthony Bruno and the HBO documentary Conversations with a Killer, but many of the criticisms of Vromen’s approach relate to his relatively sympathetic portrait of a man who appeared to bear many of the traits of the classic serial killer. Here Kuklinski is a loving family man with a code that prevents him from killing women and children. We learn he first murdered at a young age (and that his brother is also in prison for murder) and engaged in animal torture, but this has the distance of off-screen history. Vromen works his screenplay (with Morgan Land) into a place where others are much more dastardly than the noble assassin. Most notably Ray Liotta’s despicable mob boss (one of the bigger surprises is that, for a picture evidently playing fast and loose with the facts, there is no cathartic pay off to this plot thread). Sure, Kuklinski kills lots of people and dismembers them in a bathtub, with the cool efficiency of the local butcher, but we don’t really get to see much of this. Aside aside from a montage of kills just after he is taken on, his business is mostly off-screen.


Vromen is more concerned with Kuklinski’s domestic and career woes. So wife Deborah (Winona Ryder, her most substantial role in a good few years and she more than delivers) is blissfully, and then not so blissfully, unaware of her husband’s double life. When they first meet he tells her he’s dubbing cartoons for Disney when he’s actually working on porn movies. Later she unquestioningly believes the story that he works in currency exchange. It seems a little too good to be true that, aside from one monumental breakdown scene when Michael goes the full Shannon, Kuklinski is positioned as a well-meaning father and dutiful provider. He repeatedly announces that his family is the one thing he cares about and also repeatedly reacts with extreme prejudice towards anyone posing a threat to this precious environment.


So, reading after the fact that his wife was the victim of his possessive violence from the first and lived in terror of him, it’s easy to understand the opprobrium some feel towards this movie (at the same time, with regard to the extent of Kuklinski’s notoriety, many including the police and FBI suggested his self-aggrandising account of his deeds was prone to extensive exaggeration). The end titles, announcing that he never saw his family again after he was incarcerated, are probably more illustrative than their attendance of his trial. As it stands, you can’t help but come out on his side when heavies like Liotta and Davi threaten his nearest and dearest. It might be a gross distortion, but Vromen has cleverly loaded the deck.


It’s certainly the case that some of the plot threads don’t really wash, even knowing virtually nothing of the facts behind the case. Liotta, always a reliable heavy, has Ray Demeo oozing threats to Kuklinski one moment then whinily attempting to get out of killing useless chum Rosenthal the next. It doesn’t help that Rosenthal is played by David Schwimmer; you can fully believe in Schwimmer as a loser (he’s had years of practice on Friends), and he sports a ‘70s ‘tache and tracksuit with some degree of flair, but taking out a couple of drug dealers? Nah. The unfortunate consequence of some of the starry-eyed casting is that you’re invested in a scene for the wrong reasons. Schwimmer being blown away raises a chuckle, but nnot nearly so much as James Franco pleading for his life. His contribution elicits only an “Oh look, it’s the ubiquitous James Franco!” And relief when Kuklinski shoots him.  Elsewhere, Stephen Dorff isn’t nearly impressive enough of stature or presence to convince as Kuklinskli’s incarcerated older brother.


Making up for the weak or unintentionally amusing decisions are some astute ones. I mentioned Noonie, and this is the best she’s been in years, more than holding her own against Shannnon. Davi just has to walk on and do the Davi thing, he does it so well. John Ventimiglia of The Sopranas feels authentically dangerous as Liota’s right-hand man. But stealing the movie is Chris Evans’ co-assassin Mr Freezy, a longhaired psychopath whose control centre is the ice cream van he drives around. It’s a sobering realisation that the Franco was earmarked for this role until family matters forced him to take a smaller one. Evans is so good, so sleazy and irredeemable (we see him screaming at his son on Christmas Day, taking meetings in a porn cinema) you want to see the movie about this guy (who may well be a less sanitised representation of the actual Iceman type). There’s even a larger-than-life wit to his first appearance, as ACME-style he blows up the entire floor of an apartment building where both he and Kuklinski have been engaged for a hit. If Vromen had engaged more with this tonality, he might have laid himself less open to charges of misrepresentation; if you can see a streak of Looney Tunes absurdity running through the picture, fidelity concerns are given context.


Shannon, severe-faced and brooding, can’t match Evans box-of-tricks performance (it may have done his career some good, but Captain America is the worst straight jacket that could be enforced on an actor of Evans’ talents). He gets the odd moment of pitch-black humour (“Don’t take any crap from any nuns” he tells his daughter; “Yeah it can” he responds to an unsuspecting victim who pronounces that life can be “very fucking random sometimes”) and the sight of him wearing a cardigan or using a beeper has some ironic cachet (somehow, he’s also allowed to wear shades in court). The only problem is, it currently feels as if; you’ve seen one Shannon role at this point, you’ve seen them all. Can he ever surprise against the way he did in Revolutionary Road?


Even absenting myself from the case-against arguments in respect of its divergence from the true story (although where you go with a tale so full of alleged deeds rather than facts is questionable; Confessions of a Dangerous Mind territory?), The Iceman is no classic-in-waiting. But it’s well-made picture and has an acute awareness of how to successfully manipulate its audience (Kuklinski doesn’t even kill the cat, so he can’t be that bad!) It’s also a lot of fun just for the star spotting of the supporting roles, even the less successful turns.


***1/2

Popular posts from this blog

Abandon selective targeting. Shoot everything.

28 Weeks Later (2007) (SPOILERS) The first five minutes of 28 Weeks Later are far and away the best part of this sequel, offering in quick succession a devastating moral quandary and a waking nightmare, immortalised on the screen. After that, while significantly more polished, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo reveals his concept to be altogether inferior to Danny Boyle and Alex Garland’s, falling back on the crutches of gore, nihilism, and disengaging and limiting shifts of focus between characters in whom one has little investment in the first place.

The Bible never said anything about amphetamines.

The Color of Money (1986) (SPOILERS) I tend to think it’s evident when Scorsese isn’t truly exercised by material. He can still invest every ounce of the technical acumen at his fingertips, and the results can dazzle on that level, but you don’t really feel the filmmaker in the film. Which, for one of his pictures to truly carry a wallop, you need to do. We’ve seen quite a few in such deficit in recent years, most often teaming with Leo. The Color of Money , however, is the first where it was out-and-out evident the subject matter wasn’t Marty’s bag. He needed it, desperately, to come off, but in the manner a tradesman who wants to keep getting jobs. This sequel to The Hustler doesn’t linger in the mind, however good it may be, moment by moment.

Doctors make the worst patients.

Coma (1978) (SPOILERS) Michael Crichton’s sophomore big-screen feature, and by some distance his best. Perhaps it’s simply that this a milieu known to him, or perhaps it’s that it’s very much aligned to the there-and-now and present, but Coma , despite the occasional lapse in this adaptation of colleague Robin Cook’s novel, is an effective, creepy, resonant thriller and then some. Crichton knows his subject, and it shows – the picture is confident and verisimilitudinous in a way none of his other directorial efforts are – and his low-key – some might say clinical – approach pays dividends. You might also call it prescient, but that would be to suggest its subject matter wasn’t immediately relevant then too.

I said I had no family. I didn’t say I had an empty apartment.

The Apartment (1960) (SPOILERS) Billy Wilder’s romcom delivered the genre that rare Best Picture Oscar winner. Albeit, The Apartment amounts to a rather grim (now) PG-rated scenario, one rife with adultery, attempted suicide, prostitution of the soul and subjective thereof of the body. And yet, it’s also, finally, rather sweet, so salving the darker passages and evidencing the director’s expertly judged balancing act. Time Out ’s Tom Milne suggested the ending was a cop out (“ boy forgives girl and all’s well ”). But really, what other ending did the audience or central characters deserve?

Your desecration of reality will not go unpunished.

2021-22 Best-of, Worst-of and Everything Else Besides The movies might be the most visible example of attempts to cling onto cultural remnants as the previous societal template clatters down the drain. It takes something people really want – unlike a Bond movie where he kicks the can – to suggest the model of yesteryear, one where a billion-dollar grosser was like sneezing. You can argue Spider-Man: No Way Home is replete with agendas of one sort or another, and that’s undoubtedly the case (that’s Hollywood), but crowding out any such extraneous elements (and they often are) is simply a consummate crowd-pleaser that taps into tangible nostalgia through its multiverse take. Of course, nostalgia for a mere seven years ago, for something you didn’t like anyway, is a symptom of how fraught these times have become.

Listen to the goddamn qualified scientists!

Don’t Look Up (2021) (SPOILERS) It’s testament to Don’t Look Up ’s “quality” that critics who would normally lap up this kind of liberal-causes messaging couldn’t find it within themselves to grant it a free pass. Adam McKay has attempted to refashion himself as a satirist since jettisoning former collaborator Will Ferrell, but as a Hollywood player and an inevitably socio-politically partisan one, he simply falls in line with the most obvious, fatuous propagandising.

Captain, he who walks in fire will burn his feet.

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973) (SPOILERS) Ray Harryhausen returns to the kind of unadulterated fantasy material that made Jason and the Argonauts such a success – swords & stop motion, if you like. In between, there were a couple of less successful efforts, HG Wells adaptation First Men in the Moon and The Valley of the Gwangi (which I considered the best thing ever as a kid: dinosaur walks into a cowboy movie). Harryhausen’s special-effects supremacy – in a for-hire capacity – had also been consummately eclipsed by Raquel Welch’s fur bikini in One Million Years B.C . The Golden Voyage of Sinbad follows the expected Dynamation template – blank-slate hero, memorable creatures, McGuffin quest – but in its considerable favour, it also boasts a villainous performance by nobody-at-the-time, on-the-cusp-of-greatness Tom Baker.

Archimedes would split himself with envy.

Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977) (SPOILERS) Generally, this seems to be the Ray Harryhausen Sinbad outing that gets the short straw in the appreciation stakes. Which is rather unfair. True, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger lacks Tom Baker and his rich brown voice personifying evil incarnate – although Margaret Whiting more than holds her own in the wickedness stakes – and the structure follows the Harryhausen template perhaps over scrupulously (Beverly Cross previously collaborated with the stop-motion auteur on Jason and the Argonauts , and would again subsequently with Clash of the Titans ). But the storytelling is swift and sprightly, and the animation itself scores, achieving a degree of interaction frequently more proficient than its more lavishly praised peer group.

You just threw a donut in the hot zone!

Den of Thieves (2018) (SPOILERS) I'd heard this was a shameless  Heat  rip-off, and the presence of Gerard Butler seemed to confirm it would be passable-at-best B-heist hokum, so maybe it was just middling expectations, even having heard how enthused certain pockets of the Internet were, but  Den of Thieves  is a surprisingly very satisfying entry in the genre. I can't even fault it for attempting to Keyser Soze the whole shebang at the last moment – add a head in a box and you have three 1995 classics in one movie – even if that particular conceit doesn’t quite come together.

You have a very angry family, sir.

Eternals (2021) (SPOILERS) It would be overstating the case to suggest Eternals is a pleasant surprise, but given the adverse harbingers surrounding it, it’s a much more serviceable – if bloated – and thematically intriguing picture than I’d expected. The signature motifs of director and honestly-not-billionaire’s-progeny Chloé Zhao are present, mostly amounting to attempts at Malick-lite gauzy natural light and naturalism at odds with the rigidly unnatural material. There’s woke to spare too, since this is something of a Kevin Feige Phase Four flagship, one that rather floundered, showcasing his designs for a nu-MCU. Nevertheless, Eternals manages to maintain interest despite some very variable performances, effects, and the usual retreat into standard tropes, come the final big showdown.