All the Expected Surprises
Dimension Films does not want me to reveal the conclusion of Reindeer Games. I respect their request. I can tell you that the movie has plot twists and turns to spare, yet few surprises. Directed by John Frankenheimer (with dependable competency) and written by Ehren Kruger (Arlington Road, Scream 3), the film lines up some familiar action elements for a respectful tour of the genre: the reluctant criminal-hero, the brutish bad guy, the duplicitous female, the escape attempt, and the robbery.
The movie opens with a series of shots showing dead men in Santa suits.
Six days earlier, a title informs us, nice guy convict Rudy Duncan (Ben Affleck) shares a cell with Nick Cassiday (James Frain). When Rudy gets out of prison shortly afterwards, he pretends to be Nick in order to be with Nick’s prison pen pal, Ashley (Charlize Theron). He is forced to take up with Ashley’s wicked brother Gabriel (Gary Sinise) and his not-so-merry band of ethnically diverse, would-be thieves. The group wants to rob the Tomahawk, a casino where Nick used to work. All this leads us back to the opening scene featuring the dead Santa Clauses.
The film’s major events seem almost checked off a list: there’s a riot in prison cafeteria, a couple of gun fights, Rudy’s efforts to escape his bullying captors, a sex scene between Affleck and Theron (the two most beautiful actors in the film). Watching most of Frankenheimer’s films is equivalent to slipping into an old pair of sneakers: not very glamorous but comfortable (and more engaging than sneakers). He’s been directing films (for theaters and television) for more than thirty years, and is most often associated with film which mix action and questions of duty and identity, films such as The Manchurian Candidate, Six Days in May, and Seconds. In 1998, many reviewers saw Ronin as a return to form, but the film is more like a return to a significant budget.
Frankenheimer does not allow style to overcome the story, which is paradoxically most impressive when the story is wholly conventional. Reindeer Games and many of his other films show admirable stylistic restraint, using deep focus and occasional canted shots in order to allow actors to do their jobs. This cast has been expertly selected, making the expected henchmen and supporting players seem extraordinary. Dennis Farina plays Jack Bangs, the well-meaning casino owner, smooth even as he frets over declining profits, and Gary Sinise is Gabriel (looking like Robert Carlyle in Ravenous), the volatile leader of the aspiring outlaws. Pug (Donal Logue) is the dumb white guy (recalling his filthy cab driver in a series of promotional spots of MTV). The Latino, Jumpy, is played by Danny Trejo: his face tells stories that most action films can not squeeze into their running time, even a three hour affair such as Heat (1995), in which he was also excellent.
And the black man, Merlin, is played by Clarence Williams III. I remember the first time I saw Williams, in the Miami Vice episode called “Junk Love,” where he played a Haitian voodoo priest. I had trouble believing that Detective Tubbs (Philip Michael Thomas) would ever recover from his encounter with Williams. His unblinking stare (sometimes into the camera) and his uneasy limp terrified me. Since I could not remember Williams from another role, he was a voodoo priest, beamed right into my living room. Williams has a gift for being menacing and his (still unnerving) gaze in Reindeer Games seems at times almost too intense for the mostly light-hearted goings-on around him.
But for all these strong supporting performances, the film is Affleck’s. For the majority of the film, he embodies the Affleck persona we’ve come to know: he smirks and rolls his eyes every few minutes, and also does do a bit of acting, most obviously in his brief voice-over. Here his attempt to sound world-weary and battle-hardened sounds more like someone who needs a nap, making Harrison Ford’s droning Blade Runner narration sound like Jim Carrey. Befitting the persona, Rudy wants to get “home” for the holidays. He dreams of seeing his parents (sniff), drinking hot chocolate (double sniff), and eating pecan pie (enough already).
Contrasted with sweet Rudy is Ashley, who is bad bad bad. She’s ogled by the male actors and the camera, sometimes in a state of undress, but otherwise dressed to emphasize Theron’s lengthy frame. She joins the always growing list of actress willing to be a femme fatale (Barbara Stanwyck, Gloria Grahame, and Kathleen Turner) and deserves praise for her work here. Her constantly shifting moods suggest someone emotionally imbalanced and extremely manipulative. She’s so beautiful, she looks fetching even when trying to gun down poor Rudy. One wishes however, this competent noir-ish action film questioned the ways that these genres depict women, rather than effectively carrying on the tradition. In a recent Washington Post interview, Frankenheimer says of Reindeer Games, “I… cut down the level of violence. I was very aware of women watching this movie.” He should be lauded for toning down the violence because the excess adds nothing to the film. One wishes he and Kruger had spent their time considered the woman in the film with as much care as desiring to protect the supposed sensibility of women.’
Still, Reindeer Games, like Frankenheimer’s earlier Dead Bang with Don Johnson (which, I confess, I liked), demonstrates that noirish action films can be stylistically restrained and remain engaging when directed by a trained professional. It is too simple (and mostly wrong) to say that in the course of Frankenheimer’s career, films have become more self-aware, more likely to mock rather than embrace genre. It is too simple to say that this director’s work feels a bit like an echo of cinema’s past. One can say that his continued unabashed embrace of genre is a welcome contribution to contemporary film. The surprise is not that Frankenheimer still works this way but rather, that he is still working at all in the current U.S. film industry, which seems to value excess over moderation.