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Dustin's Review
Reindeer Games (2000)
1 Star

Directed by John Frankenheimer
Cast: Ben Affleck, Charlize Theron, Gary Sinise, Clarence Williams III, Dennis Farina, James Frain, Donal Logue.
2000 – 104 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for violence, profanity, sex, nudity, and gore).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, February 26, 2000.

It's getting to be like clockwork. Nowadays, every single week comes a high-profile film with killer talent that you can't believe could ever miss the mark, but does--majorly. Last week's candidate was "Hanging Up," a disastrously sloppy pile of trash that starred Meg Ryan, Diane Keaton, Lisa Kudrow, and Walter Matthau. This week's Garbage Bin award goes to "Reindeer Games," directed by world-class filmmaker John Frankenheimer (1962's "The Manchurian Candidate," 1998's "Ronin") and starring Ben Affleck, Charlize Theron, and Gary Sinise in a movie that should never have been greenlit, particularly with the inanely ludicrous screenplay by Ehren Kruger. The fact that Kruger went so very wrong here is a surprise, considering his exciting contributions to 1999's "Arlington Road" and the current "Scream 3." Hopefully, this was just a minor slip on his part, because, truth be told, his work here is pretty crummy.

Rudy Duncan (Ben Affleck), who has been in prison for a short time due to grand theft auto, is about to be paroled. It's Christmas time, and all he wants to do is go home to see his family, and settle down with a cup of hot chocolate and a slice of pecan pie. His cellmate, Nick (James Frain), has been carrying on a six-month relationship with a beautiful 25-year-old woman named Ashley (Charlize Theron), through letter correspondence. She is planning on meeting him outside the jail on the day he gets released, which is the same day as Rudy. The only problem is, two days before they are to meet, Nick is stabbed and killed in a cafeteria riot. After seeing Ashley poignantly waiting outside the prison for a man she has fallen in love with but who is nowhere to be found, Rudy decides to take over the identity of Nick for her. After a shy chat in a cafe, a lustful roll in the hay (or off the hay, as they get so carried away they fly right off the bed!), and a trip to a clothing store to buy him some new clothes, they run headfirst into a major predicament.

Their happiness does not last long when they are stalked down by Ashley's slimy brother (Gary Sinise) and his three cohorts, all of which, like Ashley, believe that Rudy is Nick. Nick, it seems, had a previous job at an Indian reservation casino, and so what they want him (Rudy) to do is head up a heist of the joint, even though he knows nothing about the place.

"Reindeer Games" isn't as much a movie that is supposed to make sense as it is a blatantly gimmicky action-thriller with the sole purpose of consistently fooling the audience. That's it. Without the token plot twists during the conclusion, which, by the way, are unpredictable because we are given absolutely no hints beforehand, there would be a vacuous filmstrip where a visual picture was supposed to be.

The first twenty minutes are the only bright spot of the picture. Beginning with the startling image of five slain Santas lying in the snow; then moving straight into the close and believable relationship that is set up between Rudy and Nick; and finally ending up with what looks to be turning into an unlikely, yet undeniably sweet romance, the picture's opening has next to no action in it, but does a nice job of setting up the characters of Rudy and Ashley. Their initial meeting at a cafe is the film's best scene, as it gets that feeling of nervousness and hesitancy in meeting someone you feel like you already know just right.

When the plot finally thickens with the entrance of Sinise and his shamelessly generic bad-guy comrades, so do the problems with the film itself. Running on autopilot for the next hour, and reminding me, in certain ways, of that awful 1996 Keanu Reeves vehicle, "Chain Reaction," it is evident that all Kruger and director John Frankenheimer are doing is wasting our time until the obligatory surprise, which (they think) will make the audience exclaim, "oooh!," when all it really will do is cause them to groan.

There is very little to recommend here, aside from the sex scene between Ben Affleck and Charlize Theron, where they both are freely in the buff (and let's face it-- who wouldn't want to see that?). While Sinise is nothing more than an unredeeming, one-dimensional baddie, Affleck and Theron both have what it takes to topline a big movie, but this isn't the ideal one. Working as mere puppets in service of the overly convoluted plot, they have talent to burn, but nowhere to place it here.

By the climax, "Reindeer Games" has degenerated from being a mere bore into something that is overwrought, mean-spirited, and graphically violent. The movie also isn't very fair to one of the central characters, nor do they treat him/her with satisfactory respect on the writing level. And then, after it has left us feeling unclean and rather depressed, it tacks on a feel-good conclusion that so obviously was filmed during reshoots that it sticks out like a sore thumb. You know you're in trouble when you set out to make an action picture, and it concludes with more sappiness than a Robin Williams movie.

©2000 by Dustin Putman

Dustin Putman