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Reindeer Games (2000)

by on 2014/12/20

Reindeer Games (2000)

“You’re sending me into an Indian casino dressed as a cowboy? Have you thought this through entirely?”

* * *

Fair warning: I’m about to do a lot of what appears to be complaining. Make no mistake, however, because I actually had a fun time with Reindeer Games, just as I have in the past, and just as I likely will again in the future.

This flick is not a great one, but it is enjoyable. It has something for almost everyone, even if it’s just grist for nitpickery. As I plotted this review — these posts don’t write themselves — I felt like I was doing an impression of Monty Python’s Spanish Inquisition.

I was trying to find a reason to be generous, despite the wash of flaws. And then I found another reason. And another. And so on.

Amongst the reasons to see it is that it’s a decent genre picture, a neo-noir heist with some interesting plot twists and turns.

It’s great for spotting stars in the days just before (or after) their prime; the cast includes Ben Affleck, Dennis Farina (Saving Private Ryan), Isaac Hayes, Donal Logue (Sunshine Sketches), Gary Sinise (Quick and the Dead), Charlize Theron (Young Adult), Gordon Tootoosis (Legends of the Fall), Danny Trejo, and even Ashton Kutcher in a funny minor role.

It’s also good as a Christmas pick if your tastes run more to the Die Hards or the seasonal noirs of Shane Black (Lethal Weapon, Long Kiss Goodnight, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang), rather than saccharine family fare.

(See also Five Great Unconventional Christmas Films.)

It’s notable too as the final feature of director John Frankenheimer, who gave us The Birdman of Alcatraz, The Manchurian Candidate, and Ronin. The last alone is reason enough for me to cut him all kinds of slack.

But enough with the sudden love-fest. It’s time for me to get back to the obligatory facts and faults at hand.

Rudy (Affleck) is a car thief who’s finally getting out of prison. All he wants is to reconcile with his estranged father for Christmas . . . that and getting hot chocolate and pecan pie. Instead he winds up meeting Ashley (Theron), whose brother Gabriel (Sinise) is a bit of a crook himself. Gabriel and his crew pressure Rudy into helping them rob a casino. Lies and violence and double crosses ensue.

There’s no grainy black-and-white film stock, and I didn’t notice chiaroscuro lighting, but nearly every other detail screams out that Reindeer Games wants to be noir. It begins in media res, flashes back, involves themes of identity, becomes distinctly unromantic, involves a heist, loves deep/rack focus compositions, and it does voice-over narration ad nauseam.

This last point, the narration, is a particular irritation, symptomatic of the dialogue overall. Rudy not only describes what we already know, but he’s saddled with an overt affectation of talking aloud to himself. His explaining comes off more clumsy than hard-boiled.

Maybe it’s what he’s saying as much as how he says it. There are several cringe-worthy sequences which nearly broke my sense of involvement: sweet nothings uttered during a love scene, a monologue about his Mama’s cranberries, a sputtered defense of an ice fishing farmer, his closing narration, and explaining plot points, as if for a hard-of-thinking audience.

The structure isn’t perfect. Sometimes things happen because they “should”, not because they make any logical sense. It could all be more forgivable, though, if it weren’t all wrapped up in poor scripting.

I’ll also point out this may well be the most edgy 14A movie I’ve seen, with multiple nude scenes, lots of violence, and copious swearing throughout.

So Reindeer Games gets my recommendation, but not without some reservations. It’s a solid story, with decent production, and generally poor polishing. It’s not the best way to spend the season, but neither is it the worst.

* * *

Rated 14A (despite considerable coarse language, nudity, and violence)

124 minutes (Director’s Cut)

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