I read your letters convict... don't play no reindeer games with me.
In a career that has spanned almost five decades, the quality of director John Frankenheimer's work has vacillated between the extremes of high art and pure camp. On the one hand, at the peak of his career during the Sixties, he directed a number of classic films which included the controversial "The Manchurian Candidate", "Seven Days in May", "Seconds", and "The Iceman Cometh". Frankenheimer also garnered a number of awards for his work on television during the Nineties, including his Emmy-award winning direction in "The Burning Season", "Andersonville", and "George Wallace". On the other hand, Frankenheimer has been lambasted for his numerous misadventures in filmmaking, including "The Holocroft Covenant", "Riviera" (which Frankenheimer directed under the pseudonym 'Alan Smithee'), and the truly awful 1996 remake "The Island of Dr. Moreau". Unfortunately, the director's latest effort "Reindeer Games", a film about a heist gone awry, falls into the latter category with a ludicrous plot that goes, well... awry.
The film opens up in Michigan's Iron Mountain Prison, a few days before Christmas. Cellmates Rudy (Ben Affleck, seen recently in "Boiler Room") and Nick (James Frain of "Hilary and Jackie") are looking forward to their imminent parole, which is only a few days away. Rudy looks forward to the simple pleasures of hot chocolate and some pecan pie, while Nick can't wait to meet Ashley (Charlize Theron of "The Cider House Rules"), the beautiful woman with whom he has been corresponding with as part of a prison pen-pal program. Unfortunately, Nick gets fatally knifed during a prison riot, and never gets a chance to meet the woman of his dreams.
Just my luck... I finally meet a nice guy, and my brother wants you worse than I do.
A couple of days later, Rudy is paroled, and as he walks out of the prison gates, he spies Ashley waiting outside, recognizing her from the numerous pictures that Nick had plastered the cell with. Despite his better judgement, Rudy approaches her and assumes Nick's identity, taking advantage of the fact that Ashley has never seen Nick. And so begins a blissful relationship... or not. It turns out that Ashley has a nasty brother named Gabriel (Gary Sinise of "The Green Mile") who wants to pull a daring robbery of the state's richest casino, using Nick's knowledge of its security operations. Of course, Rudy knows nothing about the casino, having never worked there, which is unfortunate, since his life now depends on being able to convince Gabriel that he does know something. And despite attempts by Rudy to set the record straight, nobody wants to believe him.
"Reindeer Games" starts off well, with Ehren Kruger's ("Scream 3") script focusing on the romantic intrigue between Rudy and Ashley providing the story with much of its momentum. Is Ashley really Rudy's true love? How will Rudy break the truth to her, if at all? What will Ashley do when she realizes that Rudy is not who she thinks he is? The tension is raised with the arrival of Gabriel, and Rudy becomes embroiled in a life-threatening situation where he is faced with a number of equally poor choices. And then it goes downhill from here.
As the heist portion of the story kicks in, the plot machinations become increasingly absurd and contrived, which even Frankenheimer's expert eye for action and pacing can't help. Rudy is an incredibly lucky guy, as he is provided with numerous opportunities to foul up Gabriel's plan, including a ridiculous sequence where one of the bad guys decides to have a cigarette at a most inopportune time. And like the cliché seen in your average James Bond movie, Gabriel allows Rudy to continue breathing just long enough to explain the whole plan to him, which, of course, gives our hero just enough time to work out an escape plan. Even more insulting to the intelligence of the audience is the overly elaborate scheme that is revealed at the film's climax, which would be almost impossible to execute in real-life. Of course, this is not the first time that Kruger has come up with an ending that defies logic, since he did the exact same thing in "Scream 3" and "Arlington Road" (at least the ending in "Arlington Road" had a point to it, and was somewhat plausible).
The cast is contains a number of familiar faces, whose thesping abilities vacillate as much as Frankenheimer's filmography. Affleck essentially sleepwalks in this outing, playing a likable but bland hero, lacking the enthusiasm he has shown in his better films, such as "Shakespeare in Love" or "Boiler Room". Theron, despite being saddled with an inconsistently written character, does the best she can with the material, and is most effective in the film's first half. Sinise, is sufficiently sinister as Rudy's nemesis, yet the script doesn't provide him many opportunities to really play a good villain. Rounding out the cast of one-dimensional characters are lazy efforts from Dennis Farina ("Out of Sight") as the casino's manager, and Danny Trejo ("Con Air") and Clarence Williams III ("The General's Daughter") as members of Gabriel's gang.
"Reindeer Games" was originally intended for release during the Christmas season, and it is evident why it was pushed back to late February. Frankenheimer showed much promise with 1998's "Ronin", which paired some thrilling action sequences with a decent story. This time around, the veteran director has taken three steps back with an unconvincing script, bland and brief action sequences, and dull performances, making "Reindeer Games" a belated Christmas present that should have been kept under wraps.