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With: Ben Affleck, Gary Sinise, Charlize Theron, Dennis Farina, James Frain, Donal Logue, Danny Trejo, Isaac Hayes
Written by: Ehren Kruger
Directed by: John Frankenheimer
MPAA Rating: R for strong violence, language and sexuality
Running Time: 104
Date: 02/24/2000

Reindeer Games (2000)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Fun and 'Games'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

When people hear that Reindeer Games is the new film by John Frankenheimer, they may think back to his classic The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and expect the same kind of thing. After all his last film, Ronin (1998), was also a serious politically charged thriller. That's what Frankenheimer does, doesn't he? He makes smart and somber political thrillers. But instead Reindeer Games is a romp in the park. It's a laugh and a blast. And its lack of seriousness may be causing the bad buzz the film is receiving so far.

The screenplay is by Ehren Kruger, his third, following Arlington Road and Scream 3. Reindeer Games suggests a young writer who has seen many thrillers and is trying to give the tired old genre a boost. Many lesser writers would simply try to make the material bigger; with more at stake and more explosions. (Jerry Bruckheimer, take note.) But Kruger makes Reindeer Games fun and Frankenheimer gives it class, clarity, and energy.

In the film, Ben Affleck plays a convicted car thief newly released from jail who hooks up with his recently-deceased cell-mate's pen-pal girlfriend, played by Charlize Theron. Things are looking great until her brother (Gary Sinese) shows up wanting to use Affleck's knowledge of a remote casino to rob it on Christmas night. The plot has lots of old-fashioned twists and turns, so I'll try not to give anything away. Some of the twists I was not able to guess and some I was. They're not very intelligent twists, I must admit, but they get a kind of nostalgic reaction from us. We're having so much fun that we take it as part of the package, like we would from some classic mystery novel.

Frankenheimer's presence provides some of that old-time fun. He also brings his much-needed professionalism to the picture. A younger director would have made an MTV-butchery out of this script. But Frankenheimer treats it smart. He loves widescreen angles with great depth of focus, showing us foreground and background with equal clarity. He knows the power of showing us a space (or not showing it) to provide the right kind of mood for a scene. He makes the action clear so we can see what's going on, as opposed to the usual shaky-camera motif that's supposed to convey confusion. There are a lot of shoot-outs and chases, both on foot, and in cars, and we're always clear as to whom is chasing who and where they are. This may sound simple, but it should not be discounted. Work this professional is in the minority these days.

Reindeer Games also has snow and Christmas working to its advantage. This setting helps us get into a more comfortable mindset. We feel a bit cozy and relaxed, like cuddling up to a warm fire. Affleck tells us that the first thing he wants when he gets out of prison is pecan pie and hot chocolate. Later, he dreams of simply having Christmas dinner with his family. Because we're on his side, we want these things too. These simple longings make the danger all the more potent because we're in a cocooned state. But the cocoon also allows us to enjoy the old-fashioned aspects of the movie more. (Not to mention that movies filmed in snow always look great.)

I forgot to mention that Reindeer Games is quite funny as well. One scene has Affleck finishing his pie before he will talk to the gangsters about the casino. He refuses to talk until he has stuffed every last crumb into his mouth; guns or no guns. Another funny episode involves a squirt gun. And, since Dennis Farina (Out of Sight) plays the big cheese of the casino, we know we're in for at least one or two great scenes from him.

The whole movie is played broadly and with a wild grin. I came away from this movie elated and having had a great time. It's too bad that the release was held off until now. It would have made a nice Christmas movie -- at least one that my dad and I would have enjoyed together.

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