Filmmakers like the "based-on-real-life" appellation because it they think it gives their movies authority and weight, but in "The Iceman" it's a drawback: Richard Kuklinski, the notorious hit man who died in 2006 -- and is brought so grimly and sympathetically to life by Michael Shannon in "The Iceman" -- was not just a mob resource but a serial killer and sadist. To call your movie "fact-based" while ignoring a body bag's worth of facts is just a tad unseemly.
But as both violent drama and character study, Israeli director Ariel Vromen's film does everything it should. Shannon, perhaps the best screen performer America has at the moment, executes the actor's version of multitasking, making Kuklinski an emotionless murderer, tender family man, calculating executioner and victim. The script by Vromen and Morgan Land is careful to deliver revelatory bits of Kuklinski's sordid biography only after Shannon has made him a human being, one whose brutal upbringing and consequent wellspring of anger can be understood if not condoned. Shannon has a gift for expressing intelligent menace, one he's brought to the fore in "Take Shelter," "Boardwalk Empire" and "Revolutionary Road." It certainly serves him well here.
Vromen's Kuklinski is shown early to have a talent for mayhem, but his big professional break, such as it is, is forced upon him. Working for mobsters pirating porno, he's "enlisted" by Jersey gang leader Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta), who sees in "Richie" the kind of steel-nerved killer he can use. Kuklinski was said to have killed 100 people over the course of his career, and while not all are included in "The Iceman," one certainly gets a sense of out-of-control violence, especially after Kuklinski goes rogue and hooks up with a colleague known as "Mr. Freezy" (a terrific Chris Evans). One feels for Kuklinski's daughters and wife (Winona Ryder), who in real life apparently knew as little about what Dad did for a living as the characters do here.
It's plausible. Kuklinski was good at what he did.
PLOT New Jersey hit man balances devotion to family with a virtuosic gift for contract killing.
RATING R (strong violence, pervasive language and some sexual content)
BOTTOM LINE Inelegant but gripping thriller, with another first-rate performance by Michael Shannon