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Reindeer Games

Review by Cynthia Fuchs
Posted 25 February 2000

Directed by John Frankenheimer

 Starring Ben Affleck, 
Gary Sinise, Charlize Theron, 
Clarence Williams III, 
Dennis Farina 

Written by Ehren Kruger


Reindeer Games opens with shots of five dead Santa Clauses, their bodies in snowy repose, variously dismembered, bloodied, and burned.  It's hard to think of a more simultaneously repulsive or intriguing image, not to say carefully timed, the film's February release date being just removed enough from Christmas that the joke seems appropriately acerbic, rather than flat-out nightmarish.

In fact, this clever neo-noirish-action-thriller -- directed by John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate, Ronin) and written by Ehren Kruger (Arlington Road, Scream 3) -- takes its title not from its colorful corpses or even its timeframe or setting (which is the holiday season, somewhere in Northern Michigan), but from the name and situation of its protagonist, one Rudy Duncan (Ben Affleck).  As the story begins -- flashed back six days before the dead Santas -- Rudy's in the bleak Iron Mountain Prison, looking forward to his fast-approaching parole date, dreaming of eating his mom's pie and watching "the game" with his dad, and listening patiently while his lovestruck cellmate, Nick (James Frain) reads letters from his pen pal, sweetheart, Ashley (Charlize Theron).  While Nick gushes and Rudy tries to seem appropriately supportive but not too interested, the camera pans the many snapshots of Ashley that adorn their cell walls: she's gorgeous, smiling, cuddling puppies or wearing bikinis, surrounded by little hand-drawn hearts.  Clearly, this girl is trouble. 

On his release, Rudy's getting on his prison bus, and spots Ashley outside the prison gate, wearing her pretty stretch pants and parka, waiting hopefully for Nick (who, for complicated reasons, does not make an appearance).  And, well, being a man who's been in jail for a while, Rudy can't resist, and so he pretends to be his buddy (who has never, apparently, sent the trusting Ashley a photo of himself).  At first, because he knows what Ashley's written to Nick, and because he helped Nick write his letters to Ashley, the masquerade is not difficult.  Occasionally, Rudy-as-Nick suggests his sense of guilt -- his grin is weak or his adoring gaze is wistful -- but for the most part, he's happy enough to be buying a new cold-weather jacket or spending intimate motel room time with the girl of his (cellmate's) dreams.  And for her part, Ashley seems just ready to burst. "You're better than the pictures in my mind, Nick," she says.  "You're real." Close up on her teary smile. Cue "Let It Snow" on the soundtrack.  Cut to the couple slamming into the wall as they tear each other's clothes off.

This is a John Frankenheimer movie, however, which means that all this syrupy sweetness must, of course, come to a screeching halt.  And so, just as the couple returns to the motel with a Christmas tree -- and you're about to gag for all the goo-goo eyes and unconvincing lies -- they're confronted by a band of seedy-looking miscreants, led by a leather-jacketed trucker named Gabriel (Gary Sinise, looking suitably sinewy and sinister), who identifies himself as Ashley's big brother.  It seems that Gabriel's been in on the pen pals shenanigans from the start, and that the plan is to make Nick, a former employee of the Tomahawk Casino, help in planning and executing a robbery of that establishment (which is Indian-tribe-owned and run by a white guy named Jack Bangs [Dennis Farina]).  According to Gabriel, Nick is going to help or he's going to die.  This threat is reinforced by Gabriel's multi-culti crew, a trio of hard-asses with fanciful -- that is, ironic -- names: Pug (Donal Logue), Jumpy (Danny Trejo), and Merlin (the great Clarence Williams III).  Clearly, Rudy is in over his head.  

And yet, he persists, trying earnestly to figure a way out of his dilemma.  At first, he tries admitting that he's not Nick, but this soon proves to be a bad tack (as Gabriel puts it, "Don't play no reindeer games with me!").  Then he tries to refigure his relationship with the lovely Ashley, who has, despite her protestations concerning her changing intentions and feelings for Rudy-as-Nick, obviously set him up for her nasty brother's abuses.  Eventually, she (briefly) wins back his trust (by also suffering Gabriel's abuse), so that Rudy is trying to extricate them both from the dastardly Gabriel's clutches.  This involves some dashing through snow and eluding fiery infernos, all more or less standard action-scenes shot with some panache by the inventive cinematographer Alan Caso (84 Charlie Mopic, Frankenheimer's cable movie, George Wallace).

As Rudy tries to get his bearings, Gabriel tries different approaches to ensure Rudy-as-Nick's cooperation: he plies him with pecan pie and hot chocolate (Rudy's primary and oft-repeated goals upon his release from prison), then beats him up, then coaxes him with promises of wealth and camaraderie, then tries to shoot him and drown him when Rudy-as-Nick attempts to run across an icy expanse, and then sends him in for recon at the casino, dressed as a fey cowboy.  The joke ignores reservation politics (using Native Americans as backdrop), but its point seems to be a dig at action movie heroics: all these macho types -- cowboys, truckers, muscleheads -- are angry losers looking to get back at anyone who can't beat them back.  It's Fight Club without the po-mo edginess.

The most interesting scene between Gabriel and Rudy consists of a perverse few minutes when the former sticks darts in the latter's chest.  This last is a particularly visceral scene, which makes it more interesting than most of everything else that's gone on here so far.  Which is to say, it's a scene that lays bare the dick-swinging stakes for Rudy and Gabriel.  It's not that these stakes are unknown previously, but the darts are that peculiar kind of movie excess that makes everything suddenly comical and crystalline, while also making you squirm a bit in your seat rather than rooting for any character in particular: here, Gabriel's sneery exhilaration ("Something tells me you're not being totally honest with me") is more compelling than Rudy's whiny ripostes (more and more he sounds like Dorothy, just wanting to go home).  When Gabriel says he's been down "four or five million miles of hard road," you believe him. Perhaps most important, this nastiness reminds you of the film's first swipe at conventions and sense, that Santa cadavers business. 

The darts scene -- with its skewy close ups and sweaty faces, its deep focus shots showing Gabriel's henchmen hanging out in the background -- is exactly the kind of thing that Frankenheimer does well.  He can make familiar situations seem slightly off, enough so that you sit up and pay attention.  In case, the good and bad guy positions have been slipping, in part because of the casting (Sinise is a charming snake and Affleck is a bland hero, despite his efforts to look both ironic and biker-cool on a recent Premiere cover) and in part because of the several plot turns, which have made Rudy seem increasingly clueless and foolish, and Gabriel increasingly charismatic.  (Indeed, you could say that screenwriter Kruger's Arlington Road works a similar reversal, in the Jeff Bridges and Tim Robbins characters, such that the hero eventually becomes more difficult to like than the malefactor.)  It's too bad that the film has to acquiesce to formula and return Rudy to a more standard hero's position, since it only underlines how interesting deviations can be (but then again, it's a splashy movie with an A-list cast and hefty budget that needs to make it back). Still, such temporary change-ups make a basic action-thriller seem worth watching, beyond expected plot twists and a few more shot-from-overhead explosions. 

The other reason to see this film is the henchmen.  Though none is on screen long enough to make the film completely great, Logue and Trejo are funny and smart in their roles, and Williams is close to mesmerizing every time he comes on screen.  While his super-serious Linc days are long gone, his roles since -- including Sugar Hill, Deep Cover, The General's Daughter, and Frankenheimer's 52 Pick-Up, Against the Wall, and George Wallace -- have highlighted his unique ability to convey menace and vulnerability at the same time.  Merlin is like that, probably psychotic but affable in a thuggish way, and vaguely prudent (at least, compared to the conspicuous nutcases which whom he's teamed).  Merlin is also the one desperado with a sense of the gravity of their situation: when the crew enters the casino dressed as Santas, Merlin sets his face and says, "Ho, ho, ho."

Sadly, for all the self-conscious huffing and puffing in Reindeer Games, the finale is all about the good old days, when villains get what they deserve and men are measured by their, umm, mettle.  That such days are fictional and always have been, well, that's irrelevant, because everyone who imagines him or herself into making this film's moral decisions will imagine doing the right thing.  That this right thing leads to a scene so nostalgic for a nonexistent past (it actually resembles a Norman Rockwell painting) seems equally calculated and sad.  It's sad that this fantasy seems any kind of answer to current media images of male rage and frustration. 

Click here to revead Cynthia Fuch's interview with John Frankenheimer.

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