Only Rudolph with his nose so bright could hope to spotlight every last inanity in “Reindeer Games,” a breathlessly paced potboiler that’s a “thriller” in name only. With a far-fetched script that might barely have passed muster at the B units in the old studio days, this Dimension release will command a certain up-front attention due to cast topliners Ben Affleck, Gary Sinise and Charlize Theron and vet director John Frankenheimer in his follow-up to “Ronin.” But pic will have to pull off a quick B.O. heist, as the alarms signaling a botched job will go off immediately.
One can almost envision the picture as it might have been done as a low-budget film noir a half-century ago: Dennis O’Keefe, Sterling Hayden or, if we were lucky, Robert Mitchum getting out of prison and impersonating his recently deceased cellmate in order to take up with the girl (Lizabeth Scott, Peggy Cummins or, if he were lucky, Jane Greer) with whom the latter had fallen in love via correspondence.
Little does he know, of course, that she’s not the sweet, romantic creature of her letters, and that this liaison will ensnare him in a lethal plot to knock over a casino on Christmas Eve.
The one nod Frankenheimer makes in the direction of the terse, hard-boiled, gritty noir style in which such a yarn virtually demands to be made is to shoot it in such a high-contrast, color-desaturated manner that it comes close to looking like a black-and-white film.
It also barrels along at a fast clip, but rather in the manner of a train ignoring all semaphores and warning lights on its way to a calamitous arrival at its destination.
Looking far more like a college frat boy than a hardened con finishing out a five-year stretch for grand theft auto, Affleck shuffles in as the affable Rudy, whose roomie Nick (James Frain) has plastered the walls with pictures of the luminous Ashley (Theron), who has promised to be waiting for him when he gets out in two days.
But Nick doesn’t survive that long, so when Rudy, upon his release, spots a lovely gal shivering in the Northern Michigan snow waiting for a man he knows won’t be coming out, he approaches her and introduces himself as … Nick.
After the briefest of preliminaries, the sex-starved souls jump each other’s bones in a nearby motel. But just as Rudy throws out his driver’s license with the intention of playing out the Nick hand as long as he can, in bursts a bunch of thugs led by Gabriel (Sinise in full Charles Manson regalia), who says he’s Ashley’s brother and, in between persuasive threats and thwacks, demands his help in robbing the nearby Indian casino of millions.
The real Nick, it turns out, used to work in security at the casino and thus could have provided invaluable assistance. Rudy, quickly realizing that he’ll be dead meat if Gabriel believes his initial protests that he’s not really Nick, is forced to improvise and come up with at least faintly plausible answers to Gabriel’s many questions, all the while looking for a way out of his jam.
Tale’s mid-section generates some engagement and even momentary tension, as Rudy twice manages to escape, only to be thwarted and tortured (once by darts tossed by Gabriel), and the true relationships and intentions of the characters are weighed and at least partially revealed.
Rudy remains extremely pissed at Ashley’s treachery (“I had better sex in prison,” he insults her in one of scripter Ehren Kruger’s few potent lines), but still retains the slight hope that, in a final reckoning, she might side with him against her evil brother.
This is one of those movies in which an otherwise ruthless villain repeatedly spares the life of the hero for no reason other than that the picture would have to end if he whacked him. Time and again, the crazed Gabriel is on the verge of finishing Rudy off, only to reconsider in uncertainty over his actual identity.
Once his cover is blown after a reconnaissance visit to the casino, Gabriel keeps swallowing Rudy’s b.s. about how Nick told him crucial info about casino operations.
It’s Gabriel’s notion that the gang will raid the nearly empty casino wearing Santa Claus suits. But in the ensuing mayhem, the Christmas booty doesn’t get distributed very fairly, and the final reel has more twists, dissension and betrayals than “The Asphalt Jungle,” “The Killing” and “Odds Against Tomorrow” combined, or at least seems to, given how they’re piled one on top of another, to ludicrous effect, within minutes of each other. (Dimension’s presskit begs critics not to reveal “unexpected plot developments so that the audience can enjoy them for the first time,” as if this were “The Crying Game” all over again, but no such luck.)
Too much the everyday good guy to lend weight or sardonic irony to a role that needs something in the way of an attitude, Affleck isn’t the most convincing bluffer in the world in his crucial scenes opposite Sinise; in a contemporary context, one could imagine such a role best played either by a tough customer such as Bruce Willis or a slithery chameleon on the order of Edward Norton.
Sinise, who won an Emmy playing George Wallace for Frankenheimer, is pumped up and mean as a mother, as a lifelong trucker looking for his one big haul, while Theron is plenty foxy but, it would seem, too classy to be hanging around all these lowlifes. Little effort is made to sketch in the other members of Gabriel’s gang other than by differentiated looks.
Shot in British Columbia under forbidding looking conditions that only make one hope that there were plenty of hot drinks and warm blankets on hand, pic has the mostly slapdash, inelegant look and sound of a programmer of yore. For Frankenheimer among his recent features, this is unfortunately closer to “The Island of Dr. Moreau” than to last year’s gritty and solid “Ronin.”