Before he was a skilled director and crafty, powerful actor, Ben Affleck was something else. He was a pretty mediocre movie star. I know, I know. It’s hard to believe. How could the helmer of the indelible masterpieces Gone Baby Gone and The Town ever be less than the impacting artist he is today? I don’t really know. He appeared in so many subpar feature films, I dare not repeat them or risk losing the great deal of respect I have for the man. In fact, I think it’s best if we skip that six-seven year period altogether and jump back to his incredible start.
From 1997 to 1999, Affleck was pretty much the man. He starred in the Kevin Smith indie darling Chasing Amy, and then won an Oscar for Good Will Hunting. Next he continued his good will with the Academy by appearing in two Oscar-nominated films in 1998, the emotionally wrenching drama Armageddon, and the overrated melodrama Shakespeare in Love. He then reteamed with Smith for the hilarious religious skewering Dogma in 1999, before departing from his sane mind the following year.
Now, I am very aware of the fact I’ve used almost 200 words of this review talking up Affleck’s best films. I like the guy. I love him as a director and am quite fond of his acting, as well. I’m not demented—Daredevil, Paycheck and Jersey Girl are incredibly bad (ugh – the memories are flooding back). He’s improved though, and his slip-ups are forgivable considering his age and rush to fame.
Reindeer Games, however, is one of these missteps. It’s not a Pearl Harbor or
, bit it did start his multi-year downward spiral that nearly cost him his self-respect. Affleck plays an ex-con named Rudy, but spends most of the movie referred to as either “convict” or Nick. You see, Rudy and his cellmate Nick were scheduled to be released on the same day, but Nick doesn’t exactly make it out. Waiting for Nick on the other side is the young, beautiful and inexplicably in love, Ashley (Charlize Theron, who is pre-Oscar and very pre-Dior ad campaigns). What’s waiting for Rudy? Nothing, though he’s dead set on getting some hot chocolate and a piece of pie (sidebar – Affleck says “chocolate” with an oddly endearing accent).
So when he sees Ashley standing alone in the cold, snowy Michigan street outside of prison, he does what any sex-starved ex-con would do: he says he’s Nick, to get in her pants. No harm no foul, right? Well, not exactly. First off, it’s a pretty disgusting thing to do in the first place, but moral-based decision-making is the least of Rudy’s problems. Ashley’s got a brother, Gabriel (Gary Sinise, in full Lt. Dan hair and makeup) and he’s got plans for Nick. And who claims to be Nick? Rudy. So Rudy’s in trouble.
Are you a little lost yet? It’s easier to understand on the screen, but it’s also easier to predict what happens next. The movie has a few moments of fun (the squirt gun scene is particularly rewarding), but most of them are unintentionally so (including the squirt gun scene). The film mainly survives on Rudy’s almost constant risk of death. Gabriel and his crew are persistently suspicious of who he is, and Rudy isn’t the most convincing liar (Affleck has also yet to achieve the balancing act between acting like he’s acting like a bad liar and portraying someone who lies badly). So there’s almost always a gun under Rudy’s chin, a fist slamming into his face, or darts sticking out of his shoulder.
It keeps the tension at a level that keeps Reindeer Games from being boring, but the film is never raw enough or smart enough to make us believe Rudy isn’t going to save his own skin. So there’s no risk here. We’re just waiting for the two hours to be over so we can go along our merry way. This is a long con of a movie, and the payoff isn’t really worth the risk.
The special features offer no redemption. Director John Frankenheimer provides a dull commentary track as well as 20 minutes worth of scenes from the original theatrical cut (did I not mention this is a review of the director’s cut?). Also included is a brief, horribly aged behind the scenes featurette (with ‘90s era techno music and plenty of slow motion) and the original theatrical trailer. I can’t imagine anyone but stalkers of Affleck or Theron caring enough to watch any of these, but they’re there if you want them.
What’s actually the best part of the film is spotting the random cameos from then-unknowns (look for Ashton Kutcher as Affleck’s look-a-like), sports stars (Dana Stubblefield as a menacing prison inmate), and musicians turned actors (Isaac Hayes provides the film’s most quotable line in a cafeteria). Sure it’s interesting to see how far Affleck has come as an actor, but it’s funnier to see whom he was hanging with when he was just a movie star.