AMONG THE grim pleasures in "The Iceman," the factual biography of a Jersey hitman, is a crazy-eyed stare-down between Michael Shannon and Ray Liotta.
In one corner, Liotta, who's been doing this since "Something Wild." In the other, Shannon, the new creepy kid on the block, the something wild in "Bug" and "Take Shelter," about to make the jump to villain hyperspace in "Superman."
Liotta plays Roy Demeo, a low-level mobster looking for talent, who thinks he may have spotted something in Richard Kuklinski (Shannon), who reacts with eerie nonchalance when threatened at the point of a gun during a shakedown.
Demeo spots him as a natural sociopath, and recruits him as an assassin, a job that Kuklinsk takes to with the efficiency and detachment of a bookkeeper, posing as a Wall Street guy while he builds a suburban life for his wife (Winona Ryder) and two daughters.
Wall Street pretense, soul-less suburban facade - sounds like fodder for socio-economic commentary, but "Iceman" has no such aims. It's a character study of a contract killer, purely, and that's a bit of a problem.
Kuklinski excels at his job because he lacks a soul and conscience. He has a gruesomely interesting line of work, but his resolute amorality makes for a hollow and unrewarding character.
The movie sustains energy via its enthusiastic interest in the details of Kuklinski's craft - there is a lively section involving his partnership with another killer (Chris Evans) who operates out of a Mr. Softee truck.
Captain America has fun under his fright wig, telling Kuklinski how to freeze a freshly killed corpse in order to confuse medical examiners, etc.
In general, the actors (outside the fearsomely disciplined Shannon) have a little too much fun here. There's some borderline showboating - James Franco turns up in a confusingly small two-minute roll, and Stephen Dorff is so manic during his supporting bit you question whether he's truly satisfied with smokeless cigarettes.
Shannon, working in more subtle shades, tries to make us feel for a mostly remorseless killer undone by one small moment of empathy.
After all the icy indifference he (and the movie) show his many victims, there's little sympathy for this particular devil.