Reindeer Games

Ben Affleck in a shaggy but effective heist film.

BOYISH AND BABY-FACED, Ben Affleck's Rudy is a nice kid with a hankering for hot rods, hot wiring, and home cooking. He's also a convict about to be released in time for Christmas. "You know the first thing I'm going to do?" he tells his cellmate. "Have a cup of hot chocolate. And a piece of pecan pie." That's the kind of statement that passes for character development in Reindeer Games, yet another deviously self-conscious heist thriller that sends audiences through one improbable narrative hairpin turn after another. What makes the ride worthwhile, however, is the man in the driver's seat: veteran director John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate), who jump-starts the film from its first image—five dead Santas bleeding on the snow—and never lets up on the momentum.


directed by John Frankenheimer

with Ben Affleck, Gary Sinise, and Charlize Theron

opens February 25 at Metro, Pacific Place

Screenwriter Ehren Kruger (Arlington Road, Scream 3) plots with cynical efficiency, pushing barely sketched characters into extreme situations, then simply letting events carry them along. In a nutshell, Rudy passes himself off as his recently deceased cellmate for some nookie with hot-to-trot pen pal Ashley (Charlize Theron, all sweetness and sex). It's only a few leaps from there to Rudy being kidnapped by Ashley's gangster wannabe brother Gabriel—a greasy Gary Sinise—for a casino heist. That's just the beginning of the convolutions and complications in store.

Yet as one flimsy plot device piles onto another, Reindeer Games winks at its far-fetched story mechanics. Speaking for us as well, Rudy finally blurts out: "How could you know it would work? A hundred things could have gone wrong. A thousand!" The glib answer he's given hardly satisfies, but it seems to please Frankenheimer, who knows just how silly the entire enterprise is—and turns it to his advantage.

Like a reverse image of his previous film Ronin (where cool, terse professionals revered craft and competence), here we have a criminal backwater of big-talking, stupid-as-shit dirtbags. Their dream score is a seedy tribal casino run by mouthy Vegas smoothy Dennis Farina—yet another preening fake—that serves the local yokels. It's an inspired ironic counterpoint to the contrivance of the script. Frankenheimer executes it all with the kind of mean, lean action film skills rare in the world of bloody, Tarantino-inspired "heist gone wrong" pictures. Ultimately, Reindeer Games is like a jalopy tuned to perfection by a master mechanic. The car is still a junk heap, but what a smooth ride.

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