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Games People Play

BEN AFFLECK & CHARLIZE THERON (not to mention a stack of dead Santas) join in for director John Frankenheimer’s “REINDEER GAMES”

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“‘Jingle Bells’ isn’t working for me. I don’t like it. Don’t like it at all. Get rid of it.”

The gruff voice barking these Grinch-like commands belongs to 70-year-old John Frankenheimer, director of such ’60s classics as The Manchurian Candidate, Birdman of Alcatraz, and Grand Prix (and, more recently, the guy who filmed Marlon Brando in a muumuu in The Island of Dr. Moreau). He’s pacing inside an L.A. editing room, rushing through last-minute tweaks on the music for Reindeer Games, his twisty new thriller starring Ben Affleck, Charlize Theron, and Gary Sinise. And while his bleary-eyed engineers look ready to drop — they’ve been fiddling with the film for weeks — Frankenheimer keeps picking up steam.

“‘Jingle Bells’ is too damn cheesy,” says the famously frank filmmaker. “Too damn predictable. What other songs do we have for this scene? Anything?”

If Frankenheimer is a tad detail-oriented these days, it can’t be helped. After all, there’s a lot riding on Reindeer — and not just for him. It’s an important movie for Affleck, 27, who’s learning that the Best Original Screenplay trophy he shares with Matt Damon for 1997’s Good Will Hunting will take him only so far in this town; he still needs to prove he packs enough star power to carry a movie on his own. For Theron, 24 — who’s also starring in The Cider House Rules right now — a role in a hit action movie might give her career the boost it needs to reach A-list altitudes. And it’s a big picture for Dimension Films, as well: The eight-year-old Miramax division is hyping the movie with its most lavish and expensive publicity blitz ever (which kicked off with an ad after Jan. 30’s Super Bowl).

But, of course, the stakes are highest for Frankenheimer, who’s been scrambling for decades to restart his once-dazzling, long-stalled big-screen career. Banished in the 1980s to that cinematic Siberia known as cable TV (directing Tales From the Crypt, no less), he eventually dug his way out in the ’90s with a string of Emmy-winning movies like Against the Wall and George Wallace. Not even the Moreau morass — when Frankenheimer found himself stuck on a tropical island with the muumuued Brando, a castful of freaky man-beasts, and Val Kilmer (“An unspeakable human being,” Frankenheimer says) — could break his spirit. He ended up shooting one of the most brilliantly bad B movies of all time.

And now, at an age when most of his contemporaries are hanging up their megaphones and monocles, Frankenheimer is happening again. “Nobody is hipper than John,” gushes Affleck. “He went from being the biggest director in Hollywood, to losing it all, to getting it back again. It’s very impressive.”

More impressive if Reindeer is a hit. Frankenheimer’s last film, 1998’s Ronin, in which Robert DeNiro played an ex-CIA agent apparently on a mission to run every red light in Paris, grossed a respectable $42 million. But expectations for this movie are much higher; in fact, Miramax just signed Frankenheimer to a four-picture deal.

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