Reindeer Games

Directed by John Frankenheimer
Starring: Ben Affleck, Charlize Theron, Gary Sinise, Dennis Farina, James Frain.
MPAA Rating: R for strong violence, language and sexuality.

Review by Matt Heffernan
February 26, 2000

John Frankenheimer has a long and distinguished career as a director. He started out in the early days of television, when the medium had a promising future as a dramatic workshop. He went to the big screen in the 1960s, making such classics as The Manchurian Candidate and Birdman of Alcatraz. So what happened? He has worked consistently since then, but has never come close to the success of Candidate. Judging by his latest work, he probably never will.

Reindeer Games opens with a montage of freshly killed men in Santa Claus suits, then cuts to a prison, six days earlier. Cellmates Rudy (Ben Affleck) and Nick (James Frain) have three days until their release. Nick has been in correspondence with Ashley (Charlize Theron), a girl he has never met, but is madly in love with. Rudy just wants to go home for Christmas, have some hot chocolate and pecan pie, and just get on with his life. Two days before they are to leave, Nick gets killed in a cafeteria riot.

On the day of release, Rudy sees Ashley (whom he recognizes from photographs) waiting for Nick to come out. He doesn't want to break her heart, he hasn't made love to a woman in years, and she doesn't know what Nick is supposed to look like, so Rudy claims to be him. They check into a little hotel, but their holiday romance is interrupted by her brother Gabriel (Gary Sinise). Gabriel forces Rudy to help him and his gang in a robbery of the Indian casino where Nick used to work. Rudy tries to come clean, but his only chance for survival is to go along with them.

Such a lovely film; pity it couldn't have been released during the holiday season. It would have been interesting to see Theron promote this in conjunction with The Cider House Rules. This film had some interesting points, but in the end it's just another senseless shoot-em-up action picture. It's easy to tell that a film is falling apart when I go from laughing with it to laughing at it. Its painfully predicatable plot makes feeble attempts at some twists that just fall apart.

If it weren't the inherent likability of the stars, the film could have been a total disaster. Affleck and Theron are good young actors, but this is far from their best work. Sinise is yet again the highlight of the film, since he doesn't really care if he's in a bad movie -- he just gets the job done. The screenplay was written by the young but prolific Ehren Kruger (Arlington Road, Scream 3), and some good characters are drawn to support these performances, but the situations are just too implausible to work.

If Frankenheimer keeps going at this pace, he'll never surpass Ronin, much less his earlier work. If this film makes money at the box office, he may just start making more mindless action films and we will lose another great director to the Hollywood machine.

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Reindeer Games (2000)

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Review © 2000 Matt Heffernan