Reindeer Games (2000) *
Directed by John Frankenheimer. Written by Ehren Kruger. Photography, Alan Caso. Editing, Tony Gibbs and Michael Kahn. Production design Barbara Dunphy. Music, Alan Silvestri. Producers, Marty Katz, Bob Weinstein and Chris Moore. Cast: Ben Affleck (Rudy), Gary Sinise, (Gabriel), Charlize Theron (Ashley), Dennis Farina (Jack Bangs), James Frain (Nick), Danny Trejo (Jumpy), Donal Logue (Pug), Clarence Williams III (Merlin). A Dimension (i.e. Miramax) release. 99 minutes. R (violence, language)
Director John Frankenheimer was once a big name in films as well as TV. Among his 1960s pictures were Birdman of Alcatraz; the political, paranoid cult-thriller The Manchurian Candidate; the political conspiracy thriller Seven Days in May; the WWII Resistance adventure The Train; the affecting melodrama of skydivers, The Gypsy Moths; the touching The Fixer; the haunting, chilling, humanistic sci-fi Seconds, the best film ever starring Rock Hudson.
By the 1970s Frankenheimer had crested but still made some gems: The Iceman Cometh; the sequel French Connection II -- which my minority opinion rates above the original French Connection; Black Sunday, a suspenseful, intelligent entry in the terrorist sub-genre. Then came a decidedly mixed bag, although when Frankenheimer returned to television in the 90s, he did very well with TV features (Andersonville, The Burning Season, George Wallace). On the big screen he stumbled in 1996 with the ludicrous yet campy The Island of Dr. Moreau., followed by the disappointing Ronin (1998).
Now comes the sad news that Reindeer Games is a genuine flop. It was supposed to be released during you guessed it, the Christmas 1999 season, presumably as an action "film noir" that might stand out among the sugary end-of-year items. But they postponed it.
It's a heist movie of sorts. Cell mates Nick (Farina) and Rudy (as in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, ha-ha) played by Ben Affleck, are inmates of Michigan's Iron Mounatin Prison. (In fact the movie was shot in Canada). At Christmastime, those two about to be released, which is not as bad as releasing this film.
At the last minute, there is a nicely shot food riot caused by cockroaches being served to the prisoners. Nick gets stabbed, to death, we assume. Outside the prison Rudy meets Ashley, Nick's the pretty pen-pal who did not know what Nick looked like. Rudy says "I'm Nick" and before you can say Jack Robinson or Jack Frost, the two are making passionate love. To maintain his deception Rudy even flushes down the toilet his Michigan driver's license. (But was it valid after five years in the slammer?-- Rudy by the way had been imprisoned for car theft).
The Love Games are savagely interrupted by a gang of low-life, low I.Q. types led by truck driver Gabriel, said to be Ashley's brother. They think that the new Nick is the real Nick. He denies it. They beat him up mercilessly. Again and again. They don't believe him. The violence level is high. It turns out that Nick (the real McCoy) had sent Ashley (don't ask) a hand-drawn map of the American Indian Tomahawk Casino, where Nick had worked. The gang plans to "take it down."
Skipping the skippable, which is most of the movie, under major duress Rudy admits he is Nick, claims that the casino has been remodeled while he was in prison. Ordered to case it incognito, Rudy-Nick goes there as a ridiculous cowboy.
Enough, enough. Miscast Ben Affleck, who looks like a nice boy from the 'burbs, foils and re-foils the villains, gets re-beaten, gets chained to a bed, etc. His face which should have been a pulp, magically recovers from scene to scene. He knows, near-magically, how to undo his lock. And so on.
Gabriel is an almost comically brutish, savage guy. The dialogue is for the birds, which is an insult to our flying friends. Performances are pathetically bad. The casino heist is done by the gang members all dressed up as Santa Clauses. Bur as the Marx Bros, would say, there is no Sanity Clause at any time, be it so tiny, in the picture.
I'll say zero about the plot's twists, turns, re-twists and re-turns. It is beyond the unbelievable. If you keep watching it is to see how far ludicrousness can go. The movie was written by Ehren Kruger whose scripts for Arlington Road and Scream 3 call for a five-year sentence in Iron Mountain Prison.
Through the stupidity of it all you might just sense that Frankenheimer still knows how to direct, to be like an orchestra conductor who keeps things going. But the score is much too dismal here. Perhaps he will take a gun to Kruger after he reads the reviews.
A major character is a humongous 18-wheeler. The movie is like that vehicle. It has 18 wheels, but no two of them run at the same time.