Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Reindeer Games

By Marc Savlov

MARCH 6, 2000: 

D: John Frankenheimer; with Ben Affleck, Charlize Theron, Gary Sinise, Dennis Farina, James Frain, Donal Logue, James Hutson, Ashton Kutcher, Danny Trejo. (R, 104 min.)

At one point in John Frankenheimer's Reindeer Games, harried casino boss James Banks, played by a frothing Dennis Farina, complains to a pair of Native American investors that there's too much snow surrounding their location to bring in any real profits. "Vegas doesn't have snow," he hollers, "I think they've got a law against it!" Sadly, Frankenheimer seems hemmed in by the white stuff as well: the master of the American car chase (Ronin, French Connection II) can barely mount a slippery scene pitting Ben Affleck on foot against bad-guy Sinise in a car. They go over hill, they go over dale, they go over a cliff, but it's all done in the fishtailing slower motion that describes loss of traction, both the kind that plagues four-wheeled vehicles and the sort that trips up a good action film. Simply put, Reindeer Games burns a helluva lot of rubber for a film that goes virtually nowhere. The script, by Scream 3'sEhren Kruger, toughs it out as long as it can; it's filled with the kind of plot twists that mount inexorably as the film progresses. By the time the closing credits roll, you're wondering if anyone else noticed that nothing made much sense. "Credulity" is not a word Kruger holds in much regard. The oddly cast Affleck, making, one can only suppose, a bid at the sort of comic/action-hero fame that continues since The Hard Way to elude Michael J. Fox, plays prison-fresh stooge Rudy, a marginally reformed grand-theft-auto prizewinner who hooks up with his dead cellmate's libidinous, correspondence-course prison fling, Ashley (Theron). The fact that cellmate Nick (Frain) never met his release-day paramour smoothes the way for the weaselly Rudy; he has a pang of guilt, exactly one, and then it's off to flounce about with the dead man's dream date. Things begin to go south when Ashley's gun-running trucker brother Gabriel (Sinise, looking very much like Motörhead rocker Lemmy Kilminster) arrives to forcibly conscript Rudy in a casino heist. Thinking that he's actually the living-impaired Nick, Gabriel and his band of merry men ­ costumed as a platoon of liquored-up Santas, no less ­ take on the casino with predictably foul results for all involved. Frankenheimer was probably swayed in the first 10 pages of script: The opening teaser showing a bunch of dead Santas scattered about is pretty enticing, if not exactly the kind of thing Clement Clarke Moore would embrace with good cheer. Speaking of which, from Affleck and Therize on down, the whole of Reindeer Games bubbles over with a noxious, willfully perverse, bad cheer that's so repellent it makes you squirm. Watching nice-guy Affleck attempt an evil turn, or, at least, this evil turn, is like watching Jerry Mathers set cats alight ­ not only does it not work, it's also likely to give you nasty dreams. On the upside, after his role here and a similar gig opposite Mel Gibson in Ransom, the newly buffed Sinise is giving Gary Oldman a run for his money in the psychopath department, while James Woods and Christopher Walken take a much-deserved breather. So much for the upside.

1.5 Stars

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