It’s beginning to look a lot like…Christmas? Either someone at Dimension Films neglected to flip the last couple of pages on the release calendar or Reindeer Games has been collecting dust on the shelf in Santa’s workshop. No matter, though. This preposterous Yuletide thriller is so blithely unconcerned with bearing any resemblance to reality that, by comparison, Christmas in February seems well within the realm of possibility.
Ben Affleck stars as Rudy Duncan, a car thief about to be released from prison. His cellmate Nick is getting out as well, and plans to meet up with Ashley, the woman who struck up a romantic correspondence with him after responding to his letter in a magazine for lonely prisoners. Nick goes on at great length about Ashley and how much he’s looking forward to getting together with her, apparently not realizing that the more time he spends talking about it, the less likely it is that he will make it out of jail alive. It’s that kind of movie.
The rest of Reindeer Games is a compendium of poorly thought-out action sequences and ludicrous plot twists, all courtesy of screenwriter Ehren Kruger, who makes his previous foray into the realm of implausibility, Arlington Road, look like Italian neorealism by comparison. By the time Rudy and the gang make their half-assed assault on the casino, all dressed in identical Santa suits, sentient members of the audience will be wondering when exactly the studios began accepting screenplays written in crayon. To give just one example: at one point Rudy – armed only with a squirtgun full of rum (don’t ask) – is about to be perforated by a more conventionally armed member of Gabriel’s crew. The gunman pauses before shooting Rudy in order to deliver a quip, chuckle and light a cigarette. He flicks his Bic, Rudy fires his squirtgun and – KA-BLAM! – a screen moment that wouldn’t have passed muster in a Road Runner cartoon.
Evil Dead heyday might have at least wrung some cartoonish fun out of this witless tripe, but director John Frankenheimer is under the serious misapprehension that he’s making a thinking person’s thriller. In his long and confounding career, Frankenheimer has directed one of the greatest movies of all time (The Manchurian Candidate) and one of the most enjoyably terrible (The Island of Dr. Moreau). He displayed a knack for nimble mayhem in 1998’s Ronin, staging visceral, convincing gun battles and car chases without relying on computer enhanced effects. Here he succumbs to the screenplay’s utter lack of logic, and as a result the action sequences are choppy and muddled. To make matters worse, Frankenheimer gives this inane material an inappropriately weighty visual treatment – it’s all steely grays and deep-focus widescreen compositions in the Sergio Leone mode. Giving a movie like this an epic sheen is, to use the technical term, like putting lipstick on a pig.
The actors aren’t much help either. Affleck and Theron come off like the high school quarterback and the homecoming queen trying out for the spring musical, and Gary Sinise does his best Willem Dafoe impression as Gabriel. They earn their paychecks, though, simply by getting through this nonsense with straight faces. It couldn’t have been easy.