Directed by Ariel Vroman in 2012, The Iceman attempts to cover the life and times of infamous contract killer Richard Kuklinski, a man reportedly responsible for over one hundred killings between 1948 and 1986. Inspired by a book written about Kuklinski and by the HBO documentaries The Iceman Tapes, the feature crams a whole lot of living into an hour and forty five minute long feature. As such, it definitely skips over some parts of Kuklinski's life and leaves out large chunks of his story. However, this is a feature film and not a documentary series and evaluated on its own merits as entertainment, The Iceman turns out to be a pretty solid true crime thriller.
When the movie begins in the 1960s, a strong, silent type named Richard Kuklinski (Michael Shannon) has just convinced a pretty young woman Deborah (Winona Ryder) to meet him for coffee. They talk and she asks about the tattoo on his hand, a grim reaper. He tells her he got it because he was trying to be tough. Before you know it, they're married and living in a small low-rent apartment in New Jersey, across the river from Manhattan. Richard tells everyone he makes a living dubbing cartoons but in reality, he's working as a technician at a film lab that handles porno movies. He's working there late one night when a mobster named Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta) shows up. He's not happy that the goods he needed for this customers aren't ready and his men rough Kuklinski up a bit. Impressed by the cold hearted nature he sees, Demeo arranges a meeting with Kuklinski the next day and after a test of his disposition, he brings him onboard as an enforcer and a hitman.
Before you know it, Kuklinski is rising up the ranks. He's making great money and bought a nice house, he's even fathered two kids with his wife. He tells everyone he's working as a currency exchange banker and most, including his wife, are none the wiser. He's soon got a reputation as one of the best in the business but things get complicated when his relationship with Demeo becomes strained and he has to team up with a loose nut named Mr. Freezy (Chris Evans). As his career starts to slip, the wall he's put up between his personal life and his professional life begins to crumble…
The main problem with this movie is one that's hard to avoid, and that's just how rushed it all feels. We don't meet Kuklinski until he's a grown man and outside of a quick conversation with his incarcerated brother, we learn very little about his background. As such, we don't understand his drive to kill. It's easy enough to just label him a psychotic and be done with it but what made The Iceman Tapes so chilling was how the real life Kuklinksi went into detail about events from his childhood shaped him. In fact, he claimed to have made his first kill as a teenager and the fact that the movie doesn't touch on this means that our central character has no backstory and this absolutely hurts the movie. The movie also jumps over large chunks of Kuklinski's life, chiefly because it's working to stay within the confines of an average length feature movie, but because of this it feels rushed.
So does the movie feature any redeeming qualities? Absolutely. What's here is handled well and the performances are very good. Shannon has got a pretty heavy screen presence even in lighter roles and here he uses his size and his intimidating looks very well. He comes across as a scary guy, you wouldn't want to mess with him and even in the moments he shares with his family, the only thing in the world he cares about, there's distance and coldness where there should be warmth. Ryder is also quite good as his wife, one of the only legitimately sympathetic characters in the movie. The fact that she looks frail and small beside him means we instantly fear for her once we realize who he really is, but even beyond the physicality of things there is one key moments the two share where she nails it (without going into spoilers, let's just say it happens in the kitchen). Supporting efforts from Ray Liotta and Chris Evans are also both very good, if Liotta isn't really stretching as an actor here he's good at playing mobsters and Evans actually gives of an impressive feeling of perversity with his performance. Cameos from James Franco and Stephen Dorff are fine if unremarkable while David Schwimmer of all people is surprisingly good as one of Demeo's associates.
The movie does a pretty good job with the period detail and location photography. The shots that show the pre-9/11 World Trade Center in the background don't stand out as artificial and the production team does a good job of recreating the wardrobes and fashions as the film spans the decades. There are some shots where the aging makeup applied to Shannon is obviously just that, but thankfully these are few and far between. Ultimately this is a pretty entertaining movie and definitely worth a watch for those with an interesting in the material. Just go in expecting that, a movie, and not the definitive statement on Kuklinski or a particularly comprehensive telling of his complete life's story.
The Iceman arrives on Blu-ray in a 1.85.1 widescreen presentation with AVC encoding in 1080p high definition. Detail is pretty good here, as you'd expect from such a recent picture. The movie has had some very obvious color tweaking done, things always look on the bleak side and while this suits the tone of the movie just fine, it doesn't result in a lot of pop in terms of the transfer. With that said, that's how the movie is intended to look. As to the transfer itself, black levels are good, skin tones look pretty lifelike and never waxy and there are no problems with compression artifacts to note. Close up shots reveal nice detail in faces and texture is generally very good as well, you'll notice this in the clothing most of all (those sixties and seventies fashions are good for this type of thing!). There are no issues with edge enhancement or noise reduction and all in all this is a clean, well defined image and the transfer does a nice job of replicating a very grim looking source.
The English language Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix on this does a nice job of bringing things to life. The music is spread around quite well and helps to build atmosphere nicely in many of the movie's key scenes. Dialogue is always properly balanced and crystal clear and while most of that comes out of the front of the mix, there are a few times where some interesting directionality is used for the actors. The rears also do a good job of spreading out the sound effects, the best example of that being when Kuklinkski races after the man he rear ended who then insults his family, there's a lot of good activity in that scene. Bass response is strong, and gun shots pack a good punch here. A pretty solid mix through and through. An optional Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo mix is also included and subtitles are provided in Spanish and English closed captioning.
Aside from menus and chapter selection, we get promo spots for other Millennium Films releases and two featurettes. The first one is The Making Of The Iceman and it runs roughly half an hour and is made up of interviews with director Ariel Vroman and cast members like Michael Shannon, Winonna Ryder and Chris Evans. It's a reasonably informative piece that occasionally feels a little promotional in nature but which at least lets us know what the cast appreciated about the film and about some of their experiences making the picture. The second featurette is a shorter one, The Iceman: Behind The Scenes clocks in at just over eight minutes. It features interview snippets with the same participants but also shows off some interesting footage shot on location during the shoot.
The Iceman does feel a bit rushed and definitely could have fleshed things out more than it did given the scope of the real life Kuklisnki's career but movies have to take liberties and can't always tell the whole story. So judged as a film and not as an epic documentary, yeah, this works rather well. Shannon is excellent in the lead, he's chilling and convincingly cold hearted and the supporting cast all do great work too. The Blu-ray from Millennium isn't stacked with extras but it's got two featurettes worth watching and both the picture and sound quality are quite good. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.