May 17, 2013 by abbyo
Everyone loves a good true crime story. Consider “Pain and Gain,” or, to use more classic examples, “Bonnie and Clyde” or “In Cold Blood.” True crime stories tend to be juicy affairs, filled with multiple layers of deception, crazy “I can’t believe that really happened” twists, and interesting characters.
But here’s the thing: good true crime stories rely very heavily on two things: good storytelling and having an interesting tale to tell in the first place. It’s also important to bear in mind that what looks good written down, or sounds good relayed by word of mouth doesn’t always translate into exciting drama. Lots of filmmakers end up on the wrong side of this problem (just check out the scads of direct-to-DVD movies about serial killers for evidence). It takes a specific set of skills to get it right.
Unfortunately, the filmmakers behind “The Iceman,” out this weekend in Kansas City, aren’t up to that task. The movie is helped by a stellar cast, with a pitch-perfect Michael Shannon as contract killer Richard Kuklinski (the “Iceman” of the title). But the pedestrian writing and unambitious filmmaking make this an uncreative slog.
The gist of the movie is that Kuklinski, a New Jersey family man with a loving wife and two adoring kids, was an extremely violent guy who turned his rage issues into a lucrative career in the criminal underworld. He’s suspected to have killed over 100 people. That’s nuts, right? But that’s also the entire story, as far as we’re told. Nobody, not Kuklinski himself, his friends, or the mob boss who hires him (a wasted Ray Liotta) is made interesting enough to care about.
What’s even more unfortunate is that when the film actually does hit an interesting plot point or character, for example, Kuklinski’s sometime partner in killing (Chris Evans), director Ariel Vroman chooses to breeze right past it with a montage. Given that the in-between parts of “The Iceman” are barely engaging enough to command attention, this ends up being a massive mistake. It’s not that focusing on a criminal’s personal life or relationships with the people he works with is a bad thing. But Kuklinski and his cohorts aren’t Henry Hill or the Luccheses (even if they are in the same league, Vroman doesn’t make any effort to show it), and “The Iceman” is no “Goodfellas.”
What makes “The Iceman” kind of worth seeing are the performances, particularly Shannon and Evans. Evans, as a fellow contract killer, is squirrely and sleazy, and would be even more fun to watch than he is if he were used more. And, of course, it’s always enjoyable to watch Shannon play unstable characters, so it’s no surprise that he commands lots of attention every time he Hulks out. However, if you’re only watching the movie for him, you can save yourself a bunch of time and money, and just watch his infamous dramatic reading of the Delta Gamma sorority girl letter.
There’s nothing remotely remarkable or exciting about this movie. It seems that Vroman (who also co-wrote the script) just got very lucky and landed actors that could make the most out of what they were given, and honestly the high-profile performers are probably the only reason “Iceman” is getting a theatrical release. But acting is only one part of the equation, and this film lacks the storytelling and visual talents it needs to really be worthy of anyone’s attention. If Kuklinski’s story really was worth telling, you’d never know it.