Once upon a time, back in the 1950s, there was a TV series titled I Led Three Lives. The “I” of the title was Herbert Philbrick, a Boston advertising executive who also worked undercover for the FBI and infiltrated the American Communist Party. This show came to mind while watching THE ICEMAN, a tough, fact-based new film that works both as a character study and a crime drama.
THE ICEMAN recounts the plight of Richard Kuklinski, a devoted family man who, without the knowledge of his wife and children, earns his keep as a contract killer. Kuklinski is known as “the iceman” because of his propensity for encasing his victims in ice. At one point, we are told that, in the course of his “career,” he reportedly murdered around 100 individuals.
While THE ICEMAN lacks the depth of Martin Scorsese’s GOODFELLAS, as well as such TV series as The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire, it is well-made and extremely well-acted. Not surprisingly, actors from all three-- Ray Liotta, John Ventimiglia, and Michael Shannon, respectively-- are cast in THE ICEMAN. And Shannon, one of our very best younger actors, is ideally cast as Kuklinski. His performance is commanding, and is a textbook example of Shannon’s trademark intensity. Also, Winona Ryder has her best role in years as Kuklinski’s unsuspecting mate. This New Jersey housewife character surely is a career-redefining part for Ryder.
However, while watching THE ICEMAN, one thought kept reverberating through my mind. Richard Kuklinski is a cold-blooded murderer, but he also is humanized in the film. As I say, he is shown to be a faithful husband and loving father. He simply will not murder women or children, and this even includes a character who accidently witnesses him in action. Plus, he even is shown feeding a stray cat.
So as the character of Kuklinski emerged, I asked myself: Why are we as a culture so obsessed with the Richard Kuklinskis of the world? This thought reminded me of a scene from A BRONX TALE, one of the better American movies of the past two decades. A BRONX TALE was released in 1993. It is directed by and stars Robert De Niro, before he began regularly appearing in such third-rate drivel as the current THE BIG WEDDING.
In A BRONX TALE, De Niro plays a hard-working New York City bus driver who is attempting to do the best job he can to raise his son. Only problem is, the local neighborhood hoodlum, played by Chazz Palminteri, decides to take the boy on as his protégé. How can this loving father compete with the hoodlum? For after all, he has more money in his pocket than the father earns in a year. He wears fancy suits. He lives a flashy lifestyle. Meanwhile, the father gets up early each morning and spends long days working at an unglamorous job.
There is one beautifully written scene in which the father pleads his case. In essence, the De Niro character, the bus driver, says: Isn’t there something heroic about being a good citizen, a good person, a good parent?
Working hard, albeit in obscurity, is meaningful. It is important. It is, in its own modest way, heroic. Yet somehow, being an average person has become trivialized in our celebrity-obsessed culture and, as a result, few movies are made which center on average workingmen and women. And more movies are made about real-life contract killers.
Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.
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