The American gangster is an almost a Terminator-like figure in cinema and TV: he just keeps coming and coming, and seemingly will not stop. Audience fascination with these amoral figures – who live outside the law but within a rigid parallel culture with its own codes and rules of engagement – has been endlessly analysed by critics and academics alike, and most arrive at a similar conclusion; in achieving the ultimate goal of capitalism, the acquisition of lots of money, which often requires overcoming substantial challenges, the cinematic gangster inspires a sort of perverse admiration in viewers.

The real Richard Kuklinski, aka ‘The Iceman’, was a contract killer who worked for crime families in Newark, New Jersey and New York City, and between 1948 and his final arrest in 1986 he is alleged to have killed between 100 and 250 people. The twist in this hitman tale is that for a couple of decades while Kuklinski worked as a professional killer, he was a married father living in a comfortable middle class suburb, while his family had no idea what Dad actually did to pay the mortgage, accepting his story that he was a successful businessman. As incredible as this story seems, at a time long before the internet and within a very traditional marriage, it was much more feasible for men to pull off a double life for as long as Kuklinski apparently did.

Michael Shannon portrays Kuklinski with his usual stoicism, expressionlessly moving through the world around him and taking everything in with his large, gecko-like eyes. He kills dispassionately (apart from the first murder we witness him commit), but it wasn’t his demeanour that earned him his frosty nickname. That came from his experiments in freezing the bodies of many of his victims and keeping them on ice for periods of time before thawing and dumping them, a tactic used to confound police attempts to determine times of death. The idea for this came from fellow hitman Robert ‘Mr Softee’ Pronge, who drove an ice cream truck for the innocuous camouflage it provided. Pronge, played by an unrecognisably bewigged Chris Evans, befriended and helped Kuklinski find new clients at a time when Kuklinski was discredited with the Jersey mob and basically out of work.

With support from Ray Liotta in familiar mode (and thus providing an explicit link to arguably the last great American gangster film, Goodfellas) and David Schwimmer in a rather unfamiliar one as a pony tailed, shell suited minion of Liotta’s, along with the expected period trappings and vernacular of an NYC/Jersey mob story, the film hits many of the marks beloved by fans of the subgenre, myself included. The film fails, unfortunately, to burrow under the skin of the monstrous and confounding Kuklinksi; one comes away without gaining any insight into the man, whether concocted for the sake of drama or drawn from the ample information that exists about the man. I learned more about Kuklinski spending ten minutes researching him then I did from the filmmaker’s perfunctory pass at the man’s formative years, as he opts to discard much of this revelatory backstory (the film begins in the 1960s, years after Kuklinski had commenced his murderous career), a necessary part of any attempt at empathising with such an aberrant personality.

With the classic gangster saga being re-imagined in a very vital and thrilling way in the past decade a by TV dramas like The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire, in order for a crime drama to achieve gangster greatness, it needs to show the heart and soul behind the machismo and the ritualised mayhem. As satisfying as it is on a number of levels, The Iceman’s failure to shine enough light on Kuklinski’s psyche prevents it from achieving the greatness it aspires to.


Previous articleEmma Watson Interview – The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Next articleSponsored Video: Singing Live on the set of Les Misérables
I've worked in entertainment product development and sales & marketing in the U.S., UK and my native Canada for over 20 years, and have been a part of many changes during that time (I've overseen home entertainment releases on VHS, LaserDisc, DVD and Blu-ray). I've also written and commentated about film and music for many outlets over the years. The first film I saw in the cinema was Mary Poppins, some time in the mid-60s: I was hooked. My love of the moving image remains as strong as ever.
  • Private Joker

    Having read the biography that the movie is based upon, it is not surprising the axe fell (excuse the pun) on some of tale. It is true that Kuklinsky’s childhood experiences of cruel domestic violence at the hands of his parents are key factors in his psychopathic behaviour.
    Most people lean towards “the book is always better than the film” and it maybe the case again. However, the book itself also struggles to get under the skin of its sublect: it repeats itself unnecessarily- the Iceman’s key motivations are force fed upon the reader time and again, but it never hits any real depth.
    The fact we have seen so many “Lector” style psychological media outlets in docs. films and books, diminishes the impact now. The books initial chapters cover his childhood and the elements we have come to expect: child abuse, lack of love, emotional isolation, bullying leading to killing of pets/strays into crime and murder.
    The overall problem is the book is a fairly unspectacular by the numbers biography, morbidly interesting but never that illuminating. Perhaps someone like the British director Steve McQueen would have given it an arty angle, or Martin Scorsese another outlet for a crime story. Either way, anyone following the “by-the-numbers” source material would have generated no more than a bog standard movie.

  • Ian Gilchrist

    Interesting comments PJ.; my impression from reading online is that neither of the books about him (one autobiographical and thus suspect for obvious reasons) are particularly riveting reads.

    The film could have incorporated the horrific abuse and the fact that he first murdered when he was a teenager in five minutes of screen time, rather than beginning in the ’60s; this would have gone some way to building a richer character on screen.

    One of the interesting things I picked up on is that he sounded rather like a serial killer who converted his illness into a lucrative profession; that’s a unique aspect of Kuklinski’s story and thus an odd one to choose to leave out!

  • Private Joker

    Agree with you on that-the one thing the Iceman: Confessions of a Mafia Hitman did right was linking the profession of hitman to the fact that he was a serial killer. After all he started long before he took on the “job role”.
    Given the medium of cinema, a better character build-up, rather than the movie with a “true story”introduction & presumable post script summary-would have been better. Shannon is more than capable.
    After films like “the Young Poisoners Handbook”, “Good Fella’s”, “Man Bites Dog”, “Bronson” and upcoming “Sightseers”, the style of the film could have been more creative than it sounds. I am still looking forward to it though-at least out of curiousity.

  • Ian Gilchrist

    If you’re a fan of the genre, as I say in my review, there’s much to enjoy…..I wouldn’t compare it to Sightseers in any way however PJ, apart from the killing!! 🙂