Iceman cometh: Cusack's every guy's idol

John Cusack is the guy most guys want to be– or think they are. It would be interesting to see him play a terrorist or a serial killer because he would probably make them likable, as he did a hitman in Grosse Pointe Blank and as he does a mob lawyer in The Ice Harvest.

 Director Harold Ramis established his comic cred with Caddyshack, Ghostbusters, Groundhog Day, and Analyze This, not to mention the script for National Lampoon's Animal House. This time he gets darker and deeper, thanks to a screenplay by Richard Russo and the estimable Robert Benton that– like Cusack's bond with male viewers– says a lot about the ways men relate to each other.

It's Christmas Eve in Wichita, Kansas. Charlie Arglist (Cusack) and Vincent I. Cavanagh (Billy Bob Thornton), who's known as Vic for his initials, have just ripped off mob boss Bill Guerrard (Randy Quaid) to the tune of $2,147,000 and change. Charlie, the mob's lawyer, planned the caper, and Vic executed it. Now they just have to "act normal for a few hours and we're home free."

Freezing rain is falling, so there's some question of whether they'll be able to leave town, and Bill may have gotten wise before he was supposed to because one of his goons, Roy Gelles (Mike Starr) is looking for Charlie and Vic in the bars and strip clubs where they can usually be found.

As Charlie encounters– or avoids encountering– various characters in various locations, The Ice Harvest takes on the feel of a mini-road movie, albeit one confined to a single town with icy roads. Renata (Connie Nielsen), whose appearance alone qualifies the movie as film noir, is a stripper with brains Charlie has long longed for. Now that he's a millionaire she might be interested, especially since nude dancing will be outlawed in Wichita after January 1; but he can't tell her.

Pete Van Heuten (Oliver Platt) is an old friend of Charlie's who's married to Charlie's old wife and living in Charlie's old house. Charlie understands. When Pete drunkenly introduces Charlie to a bar full of people as "the most handsome and talented mob lawyer in all of Kans-ass," Charlie understands. When Pete confesses to having slept with Charlie's wife for the last year he was married to her, Charlie understands but notes, "It makes me wonder who she's sleeping with now."

That's the odd sort of camaraderie celebrated in what is even more of a guy movie than the latest macho epic. That means women, with the occasional exception of Renata, are there to be objectified, lusted after, and protected. The extent of the film's guy-ness is verified in a climactic scene lifted from Mickey Spillane. Apart from that lapse, the script is wonderfully original.

You may never learn the meaning of the cryptic graffito, "As Wichita falls so falls Wichita Falls," but at least you'll find out who wrote it.

Thornton's role is decidedly secondary, but he brings some of that Bad Santa spirit to this holiday treat Cusack's fans won't want to miss.