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Secret life of a hit man for the mob

It's the couple's first date, a diner in North Jersey, small talk. Of course, she wants to know what he does for a living.

It's the couple's first date, a diner in North Jersey, small talk. Of course, she wants to know what he does for a living.

"I dub cartoons for Disney," he offers, looking across the table at the pretty girl with the '60s 'do.

Which is a lie. He actually dupes porn reels for the mob.

Richard Kuklinski and Deborah Pellicotti go on from there, courting some more, getting engaged, a wedding, then two daughters, too.

But he continues to keep secrets through the decades of the Kuklinskis' marriage: Richie has moved on from porn to become a contract killer. By the time his career is done, he'll have more than 100 dead men to his credit.

The Iceman, based on the true story of Kuklinski and the corpses (and body parts) he left scattered around New York and New Jersey - adapted from Philadelphia author Anthony Bruno's book of the same name - stars a cold and scary Michael Shannon. He may be the perfect actor for such a role - and he is joined by Winona Ryder as Deborah, and Ray Liotta and Chris Evans as Kuklinski's rather unsavory colleagues. Shannon gets to try on aging makeup and a changing wardrobe as he explores the grisly 20-plus-year career of the devoted family man whose double life was all about snuffing out life.

A true-crime thriller directed with grit, gristle and punchy energy by Ariel Vromen, The Iceman is never less than fascinating, even if things get a little ham-fisted here and there. (Flashbacks to a childhood of trauma and abuse to explain Kuklinski's sociopathic ways: too easy, too much.) It may be difficult, too, to accept that Deborah was so blissfully unaware of what her husband was up to - especially as the money starts pouring in, enough to pay for comfortable digs and private school for the girls - but Ryder does a good job of portraying Deborah as a sort of prototypical housewife, happy to shop and socialize. And rest assured, the actress gets to have a meaty meltdown or two.

And after seeing Liotta as a corrupt and creepy cop in The Place Beyond the Pines and now as a cold-blooded crime boss in The Iceman - his Roy DeMeo is the guy who first sees Kuklinski's potential, testing him by telling him to put a homeless guy "out of his misery" - I have visions of the actor at home, with his puppies and his stamp collection. What a sweetie!

Kuklinski earned his nickname by storing his stiffs in the deep-freeze. For a time, he teams up with another freelance hitman (Evans), the two of them hiding their victims in meat lockers, then cutting up the bodies - a limb here, a head there - and tossing them hither and yon. The trail is quite literally cold.

But eventually - despite his dogged work ethic and his steadfast rules (no women, no children) - Kuklinski makes mistakes, and makes enemies.

The Iceman cometh. And then the Iceman goeth - to prison. A title card at movie's end tells us that Kuklinski died in 2006, while serving a life sentence. He was about to testify at the trial of a Gambino crime family underboss. The death was labeled suspicious.

The Iceman *** (Out of four stars)

Directed by Ariel Vromen. With Michael Shannon, Winona Ryder, Ray Liotta, Chris Evans and David Schwimmer. Distributed by Millennium Entertainment.

Running time: 1 hour, 46 mins.

Parent's guide: R (violence, profanity, drugs, nudity, adult themes)

Playing at: Ritz East EndText