Reindeer Games (United States, 2000)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

With the possible exception of the talent involved, everything about Reindeer Games smacks of a B movie, the kind of film that, with a lesser cast, would have been shipped directly to Cinemax or Showtime. Reindeer Games suffers from a poorly written screenplay that, coupled with static and uninspired direction, lends the production a cheap and cheesy feel. And the big "twist" at the end, which will undoubtedly become one of the film's prime selling hooks, comes from so far afield that it's impossible to logically predict. (However, if you take the tactic of guessing what the least likely and most contrived occurrence will be, you have a fair chance of figuring out this secret.)

Anyone mentioning the name Hitchcock in association with Reindeer Games should be flogged for blasphemy. Contrary to popular opinion, not all of Hitchcock's movies were great examples of cinema, but, even in his less successful efforts, the Master of Suspense always managed to persuade the audience to engage their suspension of disbelief. That's a crucial element to the success of any thriller, but Reindeer Games is saddled with such a blatantly preposterous plot that it defies attempts by the sincere movie-goer to become immersed in the story.

The director is John Frankenheimer, a filmmaker with what could charitably be called an uneven reputation. Frankenheimer, who did a lot of work for TV during the '90s, began his motion picture career in the '60s, helming such classics as The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May, and The Iceman Cometh. But he is also responsible for drek like The Holocroft Covenant and the 1996 remake of The Island of Dr. Moreau. In 1998, Frankenheimer appeared to be making a rebound with Ronin, a tight, taut thriller about double-crossing mercenaries. Unfortunately, Reindeer Games has knocked him right back down again.

Reindeer Games opens in Michigan's Iron Mountain Prision, a maximum security institution where cellmates Rudy (Ben Affleck) and Nick (James Frain) are days away from their release. Each has different goals for his upcoming freedom. It's almost Christmas, and Rudy wants to go home for a mug of hot chocolate and a piece of pecan pie. Nick, on the other hand, is looking forward to a hot holiday spent in a motel room with a beautiful girl named Ashley (Charlize Theron). The two met as part of a convict pen-pal program, and, a hundred letters later, they're ready to consummate their relationship. But Nick never gets the chance to walk through the prison gates; he is killed in a cafeteria skirmish.

On the day of his release, Rudy sees Ashley waiting for Nick, looking exactly like she did in the pictures she sent him. Knowing that she is oblivious to her correspondent's appearance, Rudy does the kind of thing that only a movie character would do, and passes himself off as Nick. This turns out to be a mistake, because Ashley has a psychopathic brother named Gabriel (Gary Sinise), who has decided that the ex-con is going to help him pull a casino robbery - or else. However, since the success of the crime depends largely on Nick's knowledge of the establishment from his days as a security guard there, and since Rudy has never set foot in the place, there are some significant problems to overcome.

Whatever flaws it may have, at least Reindeer Games can boast solid performances from Charlize Theron and Gary Sinise. Theron, who has shown herself to be a talented actress in movies like The Devil's Advocate and The Cider House Rules, manages somehow to be convincing throughout this sloppy production, despite some of the ripe lines of dialogue she is forced to utter. Sinise, a performer with great range and ability, is in danger of becoming typecast as a villain. He's as scary as anyone else playing this kind of role, yet he never chews on the scenery with the unrestrained gusto of a Dennis Hopper or a Christopher Walken. Meanwhile, Ben Affleck does not deliver one of his better performances. None of the charisma or energy evident in Affleck's Boiler Room work is on display here.

The real problem is the storyline these actors find themselves trapped in. Written by Scream 3 scribe Ehren Kruger, Reindeer Games is an inept blend of routine action sequences, howlingly bad dialogue, and standard thriller plot elements. Contrivances abound - not since TV's MacGyver has anyone been as handy as Rudy with a dart, a knife, and a squirt gun. With the exception of the big twist, everything in this film is disappointingly predictable. And, in the end, Kruger is forced to rely on one of the most tired plot twists of them all - the bad guy who holds the good guy at gunpoint while explaining the entire vile plan to him.

In spite of the film's inherent badness, or perhaps because of it, it is possible to derive a certain level of masochistic pleasure from watching Reindeer Games. The film shows little or no inventiveness. Visually, it's uninteresting, with an over-reliance upon close-ups and static shots, and there's a special effects scene that is shockingly unconvincing. But, for those who go into this film with expectations of a B movie (something encouraged by the recognition that Miramax is releasing the picture under their Dimension imprint), disappointment will be curtailed. There's a little gratuitous nudity and quite a bit of violence - enough that Reindeer Games probably won't look half-bad when it finally makes it to cable TV, where it belongs in the first place.

Reindeer Games (United States, 2000)

Director: John Frankenheimer
Cast: Ben Affleck, Charlize Theron, Gary Sinise, James Frain, Dennis Farina, Danny Trejo, Clarence Williams III
Screenplay: Ehren Kruger
Cinematography: Alan Caso
Music: Alan Silvestri
U.S. Distributor: Dimension Films
Run Time: 1:45
U.S. Release Date: 2000-02-25
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1