Film review: The Iceman - Count yourself lucky, Winona... at least you escaped the wig fest


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The Independent Culture

Anyone for a game of "Who's that Behind the Facial Hair"? The Iceman is a gritty biopic of Richard Kuklinski (Michael Shannon), a Mafia hitman from New Jersey who dispatched 100-odd people from the 1960s to the 1980s, apparently unbeknown to his wife (Winona Ryder) and daughters. And, like all Mafia sagas, it's also an opportunity for the wig department to strut its stuff.

So, yes, that is David "Ross from Friends" Schwimmer with a Mexican bandito moustache (he gets a scolding from his boss, Ray Liotta, in an early scene, so you wouldn't bet on him making it out of the film alive). And, yes, that's Stephen Dorff hiding behind a straggly trucker 'tache as Kuklinski's jailbird brother. And, best of all, there's Captain America, Chris Evans, playing a fellow hitman who looks like the singer in a Motorhead tribute band. As for Shannon, he progresses from clean-shaven to Old Testament prophet with every imaginable combination of moustaches, beards and sideburns in between. But whatever the facial fungus, he still has the hulking presence that makes him one of the most unsettlingly watchable actors around.

Shannon specialises in characters who are wounded and withdrawn, but who might well tear off someone's limbs at any moment. He always looks as if he's squinting into a bright light, and he's always hunched, as if his breezeblock of a head is too heavy for his long narrow body to support. Stick on a few scars and he could play Frankenstein's monster, with no further make-up required. Thanks to him, The Iceman can be riveting, but otherwise it's the equivalent of an exploitative true-crime paperback – a catalogue of grisly murders with no structure or urgency, and little understanding of the person beneath the moustache. Haircuts aside, all we really learn is that The Iceman was not a nice man.

Will Smith, on the other hand, is so nice that he's produced a film, After Earth (M Night Shyamalan, 100 mins, 12A **), for the sole purpose of giving his 14-year-old son Jaden something to do. It's a survival thriller set 1,000 years from now, when the human race no longer lives on its home planet. Smith Snr is the most heroic man in the universe, a soldier who regularly slices and dices predatory aliens using a staff with a blade on either end – for some reason, there are no guns in the future. He's an unsmiling, unemotional type who can't spare any affection for his adoring son, Smith Jnr. But, luckily, they get a chance to bond when their spaceship crashes on Earth. Will's legs are broken, so it's up to Jaden to trek through the supposedly hostile (but actually not hostile at all) wilderness to fetch a distress beacon, while his dad sits in the wreckage, growling instructions via a radio link.

Considering that After Earth is a sci-fi adventure starring the wiseguy from Men in Black and his teenage kid, it's astonishing how glum and pompous it is – that is, until you remember that it's directed by M Night Shyamalan. Technically, it's well made, but if I want to see a whinging brat trudge through a forest while a scowling martinet bosses him around, I've got my scout camp memories to draw on.

I'm not sure whether After Earth does young Jaden any favours, either. There aren't many stars who could carry a film on their own while wearing a Spandex bodysuit and talking about "geothermal nodes" in an invented futuristic accent. By the end, Jaden's lack of talent has been exposed so cruelly that the project seems less like Will Smith's gift to his son than an elaborate form of punishment. Didn't Jaden tidy his bedroom?

Critic's Choice

It's not just about impending doom: the visionary strangeness of Werner Herzog is revealed in all its many shades in a season at London's BFI Southbank. A highlight is Amazon odyssey Aguirre, Wrath of God. Elsewhere, Edward Hogg is a Londoner at a loose end in Tom Shkolnik's hipster drama The Comedian.