The Film: Reindeer Games (2000)

The Principals: Ben Affleck, Charlize Theron, Gary Sinise, Dennis Farina, Clarence Williams III, James Frain, Donal Logue, Isaac Hayes, Danny Trejo. Written by Ehren Kruger. Directed by John Frankenheimer.

The Premise: Car thief Rudy Duncan (Affleck) gets out of jail, assuming the identity of his newly dead cellmate Nick (Frain) and falling for his fuck-buddy pen pal, Ashley (Theron). What Rudy doesn’t realize is that Ashley’s psychotic brother (Sinise) has sinister plans for Rudy—assumed to be Nick—in their plan of a Christmas heist on a Native American casino.

Is It Good? Surprisingly, for the most part, it is. Certainly, in the grand scheme of John Frankenheimer’s career, his last theatrical outing isn’t exactly on the level of The Manchurian Candidate, Seconds or 52 Pick-Up. Most of its flaws come from the preposterous screenplay by Ehren Kruger, which often seems like an exercise in being able to cram as many twists and red herrings into the narrative as humanly possible. Nevertheless, coupled with the expert craftsmanship of a vet like Frankenheimer, it mostly prevails as a well-shot, silly but entertaining post-Tarantino crime thriller.

What Reindeer Games succeeds at is making a mountain out of a mole hill. The blueprints called for an intricate work that John Dahl would have done, yet Frankenheimer takes the monstrous “look how smart my screenplay is” qualities of Kruger’s screenplay and turns it into a stunning impression of Tony Scott. Not that there’s anything wrong with that—if imperfect, the film is a wildly entertaining ride filled with a slew of great character actors surrounding its three leads and quite a few inspired setpieces.

Ben Affleck’s turn as Rudy Duncan (Get it? The movie’s called Reindeer Games and the protagonist’s name is Rudy!*) is half of a decent performance. The side of the role that he succeeds at is the amiable Everyman who’s at dire straits, who sees an earnest side to the wrong side of the tracks. Sleaze, however, is what Affleck oversees in the role. Assuming the identity of your fallen prison buddy so that you can marathon-fuck Charlize Theron takes a serious amount of opportunism and sliminess, and at this point in his career, Affleck—still the guy who co-wrote Good Will Hunting that was in Kevin Smith’s movies—didn’t quite have what it takes to carry the part convincingly.

Those around him, however, fare stronger. Charlize Theron is at the height of her sexiness (and still is), and her turn as the femme fatale Ashley takes great advantage of her dangerous side and slinkiness. She plays duplicitous quite well, and once her true nature is revealed, her vamping is corroded by her nastiness. Gary Sinise looks like the Evil Spock version of Lt. Dan and chews up every piece of scenery he can as the full-nutzoid Gabriel. The crew is rounded out by an eclectic gang of psychos played by Clarence Williams III, Donal Logue and Danny Trejo (who has an amusing moment where he reads a magazine article about Christmas shopping out loud to nobody’s conviction).

Everything boils down to the climactic heist where Dennis Farina goes akimbo with two submachine guns (because you can’t go back to Vegas) and Affleck applies his knowledge of movie physics from The Adventures of Ford Fairlane. As if that was enough, Frankenheimer rips out the kitchen sink in Dewey Cox fashion and hurls it over a cliff for a climax, which answers the questions, “Have all of the insane twists been exhausted for the duration of this film?” (The answer is no.)

Frankenheimer had the HBO film Path to War left in him before he passed away in 2002. For his final film, however, as you can see in the last ten minutes of the film, he knew he had to go out with a bang. A Dead Bang.

Is It Worth a Look? In spite of its ever-changing red herrings, bait-and-switch jobs, and the ultimate lunkheaded fate of the tale, I can wholeheartedly say this is well worth a watch. I’d always wanted to see this one as a kid and never got to it, and at least knowing that Frankenheimer went out with something with a cast this good and this entertaining is reason enough to check it out.

Random Anecdotes: Charlize Theron has designated this film the worst she’s ever done, but finds the experience grateful for her experience working with John Frankenheimer.

Reindeer Games isn’t the first time Frankenheimer directed a movie set around Christmastime—his underrated Don Johnson cop thriller Dead Bang (punned above) also takes place in time for the holidays, with Johnson coaxing an irate Bob Balaban out of his family time for the sake of his murder investigation.

Some almost-ran qualities among the principal cast and crew—Jerry Goldsmith (who worked with Frankenheimer on Seven Days in May, Seconds and the awesome, not-on-DVD The Challenge) originally composed the score, but was replaced with the soaring work from the reliable Alan Silvestri. Further, Vin Diesel was cast in the film but got dumped once he started making too many unreasonable demands for a supporting role early in his career.

While I haven’t seen it—it’s not on Instant—a director’s cut was released on DVD in 2001 with 20 minutes of extra footage and alternate takes.

My fellow CHUD brother, Rene F. Rangel, calls Reindeer Games one of the best films of 2000, if not all of the 2000’s. Yup.

Cinematic Soulmates: Reservoir Dogs, True Romance, Red Rock West, 3000 Miles to Graceland

* – Say that in your best Norm MacDonald impression.