Reindeer Games is the sort of movie that won’t be seen by the people who will appreciate it. Granted, cinemaphiles will be familiar with the work of director John Frankenheimer, who recently celebrated his 70th birthday, and has been making thrillers packed with twisting turns since your grandmother made regular trips to the cinema (and as the sea of gray bouffants at an LA revival house recently proved, he has made a lasting impression on them). You see the trailer, you think action. Exploding casinos. That ponderous pud, Ben Affleck, as the con about to be sprung. Sexy Charlize Theron as the girlfriend.
But there’s so much more. Rudy Duncan (Ben Affleck) has spent the last two years holed up in Michigan’s top security prison for hot-wiring cars. About to be released before the holidays, he dreams of Christmas dinner with his folks while cellmate Nick (James Frain) has plans with sexy pen pal Ashley (Charlize Theron) before he’s fatally slashed in a lunchroom riot.
With visions of lingerie dancing in his head, Rudy impersonates Nick, hooking up with Nick’s blue collar dream boat. No sooner have the pair decked the halls, when Ashley’s psycho brother Gabriel (Gary Sinise) shows up to rope Nick into heisting the reservation casino he once worked in.
True to Frankeheimer’s body of work, no one is what they present themselves to be–even Rudy, the simple-minded ex-con, must convince Gabriel that he’s Nick to avoid being left for dog meat–and Ashley’s true identity isn’t revealed until the climactic ending (we must thank writer Ehren Kruger for that). But there are as many demented comedic nuances and references to the working man as there are explosions and firearms.
Sure, it’s fun to watch Affleck play a human dart board and dodge bullets in the snow, just as it’s fun to watch Gabriel and his band of hoodlums attempt the heist dressed as department store Santas. But it’s even more exciting to listen to Gabriel’s tirades about the five million tortuous miles he’s logged in his big rig, or watch the casino manager explain to the tribesmen that they “can’t have Vegas with all this snow.”
In keeping with Frankenheimer’s style, everyone is a character, but not a cartoon. As Gabriel, Gary Sinise is frighteningly believable as the fractured trucker, while his multi-culti band of thugs include an unrecognizable Isaac Hayes (unrecognizable thanks to his sparse dialogue) and a pseudo-intellectual American Indian tough (one niggling annoyance, and this is more for the film industry than this movie: why does the one recent on screen Injun apart from the cast of Smoke Signals have to be a bad guy?).
Charlize Theron is far more convincing as a murderous vixen than Ashley Judd was in the recent Eye of the Beholder, and fairly refreshing as a dead end girl who takes her life into her own hands. “If you want a future, you’ve gotta stand up and steal it,” she tells Affleck, who even shines under Frankenheimer’s direction. Witness a master at work, one who has learned to transcend the conventions of humor and action in film by bringing human nature, with all its filth and complications, to the screen. Bring your girlfriend!