Not long ago Shane Black’s “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang” attempted a homage to 1940s film noir, but floundered on the writer-director’s smug, superior attitude and a general air of jokiness which tended to deal condescendingly with its models rather than treat them with the respect they deserve. Now another film arrives to show how it should be done. “The Ice Harvest” is also a tribute to the spirit of film noir, but it achieves a proper balance between emulation and gentle send-up. Smart rather than smart-alecky, it captures the gleefully cynical tone of its models while adding a strain of grim humor that never degenerates into campy spoof. It’s obviously contrived, as any homage must necessarily be, but it’s been pulled off with flair, and the result is enormously enjoyable.
You can imagine the script having come from the pen of Jim Thompson or Fredric Brown, though it’s actually been adapted by Richard Russo and Robert Benton–both of them superb craftsmen–from a novel by Scott Phillips. John Cusack, putting his now-aging boyish charm to great use after some wafer-thin romantic comedies, plays Charlie Arglist, a mob lawyer not in some big city but in Wichita Falls, Kansas. The picture plays out over a single Christmas Eve, just as a sleet storm is hitting the burg, and Charlie–acting in tandem with seedy operator Vic Cavanaugh (Billy Bob Thornton)–has skimmed more than two million bucks from the coffers of his Kansas City boss Bill Guerrard (Randy Quaid). The men plan to skip town for warmer–and more anonymous–climes before the money’s found missing, but they have to wait until the freezing rain stops, and so they split up to avoid suspicion, which leaves the nervous Charlie rudderless when one of Guerrard’s burly enforcers, Roy Geddes (Mike Starr), shows up looking for them, as will Guerrard himself in due course. But the heist plot isn’t all that’s going on over this wintry night. Charlie also decides to romance Renata (Connie Nielsen), the ultra-hot owner of a strip joint he frequents, offering to steal from his boss’s safe a compromising photo of a city councilman that could save her dive from forced closure; and he’s stuck baby-sitting drunken pal Pete Van Heuten (Oliver Platt), a lawyer who also happens to be married to Charlie’s ex-wife. And in a running gag (but a suspenseful one), a cop (T.J. Jagodowski), blandly anxious to ingratiate himself with the Guerrard machine, repeatedly runs into Charlie in decidedly compromising situations but merely sends him on his way.
As fashioned by Russo and Benton, Charlie is a fine example of the sort of hapless schmuck who often anchors pulp novels and the classic forties noirs, a basically good fellow trapped in a mess he’s caused himself–and Cusack plays him perfectly, recapturing the deadpan pizzazz he radiated in his earlier lead turns but had recently lost. Thornton, on the other hand, is equally dead-on as the cooler, more malevolent side of the larcenous duo, spouting the more nastily funny lines in the script with aplomb. These two are simply great together, doing a routine worthy of the prize spot in a vaudeville show, and their final scene–with Starr tangentially present–is an example of cinematic gallows humor at its best. But when Thornton is off screen, Cusack also teams up to great effect with both Platt, who pulls off his protracted drunkard shtick without becoming tiresome–not an easy thing to do–and Nielsen, whose femme fatale recalls the likes of Turner and Bacall, keeps us guessing about her motives until the end. Quaid, meanwhile, makes Guerrard an appropriately brutal presence, and Starr and Jagodowski add nice touches of their own. (So does the rest of the supporting cast, who make the denizens at Renata’s place a similarly colorful bunch.) But none of them could have succeeded so well were it not for the deft, precise handling of Harold Ramis, whose direction has hardly ever demonstrated such skilled inflection before. He in turn is abetted by cinematographer Alar Kivilo, who uses the frigid atmosphere, dark interiors and crisp, flat exteriors to create a vivid sense of place; by the appropriately tacky production design by Patrizia von Brandenstein; by crisp editing from Lee Percy (which brings the picture in at a satisfying 88 minutes); and by a music score alternately sinister and upbeat by David Kitay, which also incorporates Christmas standards to fine effect.
There are some slippery missteps in “The Ice Harvest.” A scene in which Charlie and Pete break in on a meal Charlie’s ex and his two children are sharing with his erstwhile in-laws has a stridency that doesn’t quite fit. And some may be disquieted at the level of violence that occasionally explodes in the film–the corpses do pile up (and none too humorously), and some of the deaths involve considerable bloodshed. (To be fair, though, those sequences are entirely true to the pulp tradition being copied here.) And it goes without saying that any attempt one discerns in the picture to say anything even remotely profound about the human condition is sheer blarney. But at the same time it avoids the flippancy of a film like “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang,” and while its mixture of film noir nastiness and dryly black humor may not appeal to everyone, those enamored of cinematic pulp will reap rich rewards from its coolly calculating surface.