[Written for Mr. Showbiz]
The kindest thing to say about Reindeer Games is that we shall certainly see far worse movies this year. The picture, a would-be thriller, is a mechanical exercise from the get-go, one that positively defies suspension of disbelief with each succeeding twist of a plot no one would ever hatch in real life. Yet within its trashy parameters the lumbering robot-beast does manage to drag itself to the finish line—several times, in fact—and in retrospect one realizes that even its most dubious quick-change reversals were planted in the early reels. That’s more coherence than we can find in a lot of contemporary movies, and for such minimal consolation we must learn to be grateful.
Flashing back from a strenuously enigmatic opening full of swirling snow and dead Santas, the picture introduces us to Rudy Duncan (Ben Affleck), a mild-mannered Michigan lad winding up a five-year stretch for grand theft auto at Iron Mountain Penitentiary. All Rudy’s dreaming of is his release in time for Christmas, a mug of cocoa and a slice of pecan pie, and just maybe a fantasy roll in the hay with the beauteous babe with whom his cellmate Nick—due for release at the same time—has become pen pals (pun apparently unintended). Alas, an untimely prison riot takes Nick out of the picture, and Rudy, seeing the heretofore-Polaroid-framed vision of loveliness waiting outside the prison gates in the flesh (Charlize Theron), decides that he should become Nick, at least long enough to make one of his dreams come true.
OK, so maybe he deserves what he gets. That, in short order, is a brutal interruption of the couple’s quasi-honeymoon idyll by her Manson-haired, certifiably whacko brother Gabriel (Gary Sinise) and his three cronies. It seems that Gabriel has been peeking at sister Ashley’s love letters from Nick and conceived a lunatic plan. Nick was once a security guard at a nearby Indian casino, and he—that is, Rudy/“Nick”—should have the inside info on how best to rob the place come Christmas Eve. Piling aboard Gabriel’s monster semi (he’s your worst nightmare of a long-haul trucker), the motley crew rolls toward destiny, with Rudy changing his mind from moment to moment whether he should come clean about his identity or desperately preserve the illusion, and the loving couple wig-wagging between frantic loyalty and nagging doubt.
Reindeer Games was directed by John Frankenheimer. It’s his first feature since Ronin, a crackling 1998 character thriller about mercenaries that in its turn was the director’s first solid big-screen achievement in nearly a quarter-century. Reindeer Games is no Ronin (let alone a Manchurian Candidate, to recall Frankenheimer’s glory days), but it has its fleeting charms. The monster truck barreling across Michigan’s frigid Upper Peninsula (actually British Columbia) is a great cinemagenic prop, and Donal Logue (recent Best Actor at Sundance), Frankenheimer stalwart Clarence Williams III, and Danny Trejo all make one wish that the script—by Scream 3’s Ehren Kruger—gave the subordinate bad guys more to do than the scenery-chewing Sinise. Trejo, a glorious plug-ugly, evinces an especially droll fascination with reading the business news.
Indeed, droll is the movie’s fallback mode (the hardened criminals have never actually pulled a robbery before), and it’s not a mode to which the big-closeup, rolling-thunder Frankenheimer is suited. Deciding to play Reindeer Games half for laughs may account for the lightweight Affleck’s casting in a part that cries out for a more intense presence. There are moments when he comes off as a Ben Stiller parody-hunk.