We gave it a C
It’s one of the happy ironies of movie history that some of the wildest, most cathartic thrillers have also been entrancingly spry and funny trip-wire entertainments. Hitchcock could always get you laughing at his life-or-death felicity, and such disparate modern suspense films as Jaws, Mad Max, Die Hard, and Pulp Fiction have recognized that there’s no contradiction in making an audience feel gripped and tickled at the same time. On the other hand, there’s Reindeer Games. Set in Michigan during a cold and slushy Christmas, it’s full of machine-gun shoot-outs and vehicle-over-the-cliff climaxes; it has a hero, a genially duplicitous car thief named Rudy Duncan (Ben Affleck), who endures endless sadistic pummelings only to emerge with little more than a bloody nose; and it goes out of its way to showcase a casino heist in which a couple of gang members disguise themselves as Santa Claus.
Reindeer Games, in other words, displays no ambition to be anything more than a synthetic sense-jolt conveyor of the week. Yet the veteran director John Frankenheimer, coming off his ”Look! I can still stage a great car chase!” comeback, Ronin, treats this trashy, disreputable material with a brute squareness so leaden and dour it’s practically Teutonic; he doesn’t seem to realize that he’s making Con Air and not French Connection III. Frankenheimer fills the movie with looming, portentous close-ups (you can practically count Affleck’s pearly whites, not to mention Gary Sinise’s not-so-pearly ones), and he treats characters that appear to have been conceived as boorish, violent morons as if they were memorable rotters on the low-criminal ladder.
Just out of prison, Affleck’s Rudy improvises a half-baked scheme to pass himself off as his former cell mate, Nick (James Frain). It’s all so that Rudy can hook up with Ashley (Charlize Theron), the adoring cutie who had become involved with Nick through a series of lonely hearts prison letters. (The two never actually met.) Rudy has little trouble — and, apparently, no scruples — assuming the identity of his convict buddy, who disappears from the film early on after being critically stabbed. There’s a hitch, though — a greasy-haired petty crook named Gabriel (Sinise), who has used Ashley’s letters to lure Nick into helping him rob a casino.
Nick, who used to work at the casino, is supposed to know its layout, the location of the secret safe, and so on. But Rudy doesn’t know any of this. Are his attempts at deception clever? Funny? Suspenseful? Actually, none of the above; the characters see through him nearly as quickly as the audience does. Gabriel, however, in an act of stupido convenience, keeps convincing himself that Rudy is Nick. Sure, he needs the guy for his robbery, but, more than that, Reindeer Games needs to sustain its gapingly slipshod identity charade. Otherwise there’d be no movie.
That’s a shame, too, since Affleck has just what it takes to play a nice-guy con artist. He’s ingenuous, even baby-faced, but he gathers force as an actor when he has to steamroll someone or talk his way out of a jam. Unfortunately, the script, by Ehren Kruger (Arlington Road, Scream 3), offers the star little in the way of fast and loose verbal play. Sinise hams tastefully, though his rabid small-time scoundrel comes off as more mingy than menacing, and Theron wears her character’s shifting sympathies about as rotely as she does her orange dye job. The performance that really should have counted was Frankenheimer’s. He keeps this joyless machine moving, but most of the time he seems stranded between eras, investing ”conviction” in a movie that was never meant to be more than a glib quasi-parody. Where’s Simon West or Michael Bay when you need them? In Reindeer Games, Frankenheimer is a craftsman trying to do a hack’s job. C