Everyone in Reindeer Games is stupid. They consistently fail to ask simple questions that would clarify everything, and even when a question is asked and answered, they don’t listen. Could the movie have worked as a farcical action noir, where everyone is too focused on the prize — in this case, a casino heist — to pause for a moment of common sense? Perhaps. Reindeer Games badly needed a Steve Buscemi figure, a guy who stands on the sidelines and can’t believe what he’s hearing: “Are you guys nuts? This guy isn’t who he says he is! He just said he isn’t who he says he is! I say we bag this, go home and watch some porno.”
Ben Affleck, likable enough here, is ex-con Rudy Duncan, who has done his five years for grand theft auto and now looks forward to the bus ride back home to his dad, sports on TV, and a steaming mug of hot chocolate. His former cellmate Nick (James Frain), who’s just been stabbed in a cafeteria riot, had been talking a lot about a young woman he’d been swapping letters with, and had hoped to meet upon his release. Rudy spots the woman, Ashley (Charlize Theron), waiting for Nick outside the prison; on a whim, he decides to pass himself off as Nick and hook up with her. From there, things get hairy; we discover, among other things, that Ashley is connected to a scuzzy killer named Gabriel (Gary Sinise), who wants Rudy to help him and his gang infiltrate a snowbound casino.
The complication here is that Nick once worked security at this casino, and that Gabriel, who thinks Rudy is Nick, assumes Rudy has inside info on its layout and security weaknesses. This could have been a tangled-web comedy of errors, in which Rudy’s first big lie to Ashley mushrooms into a cluster of self-preserving fabrications. But Reindeer Games, directed without much fun or spirit by John Frankenheimer, just plods from one implausible scene to the next, producing not amusement but impatience. We’re all too aware that if just one person in the movie used his head, the movie would be over in five minutes; and the longer it goes on, the better that option seems.
Frankenheimer is a wizard; he still stages action cleanly, and there’s a nasty little bit of business involving a whiskey-filled water gun. But those expecting the pure-cinema thrills of Ronin (never mind the intricate mind games of The Manchurian Candidate) are bound to feel as if they’d opened a gaudily wrapped Christmas present and found a pair of socks inside. (As to why this yuletide-themed thriller — with its gun-toting Santas, ironic use of holiday tunes, and hero named Rudy — is being released in February, your guess is better than mine.)
The busy, undistinguished script (which does have its moments, like a brief scene of hard-bitten henchman Danny Trejo solemnly discussing why there should be two Christmases a year) comes courtesy of Ehren Kruger, fresh from the equally lackluster Scream 3. Kruger showed promise with last year’s Arlington Road, a skillful thriller with a lollapalooza ending, but his produced work since then has been full of empty plot twists that invalidate whatever preceded them. The climax of Reindeer Games has a few too many “Yes, you fool, this is what was really happening” speeches. Kruger pulls the rug out from under you just for its own sake.
The casino scenes are brightened by Dennis Farina, seen too briefly as the casino owner; this former cop always carries authentic toughness to the screen — his eyes tell you he’s seen it all — and he makes the movie look like the callow pulp it is. In a movie like Ronin, full of iconic figures with real weight (Robert De Niro, Jean Reno, Stellan Skarsgaard, etc.), Farina would have fit right in; here, he seems like the only adult in a playpen full of boys with guns. Frankenheimer was right to cast him, but he should have rewritten the script accordingly. Just a movie about Farina’s character, a bitter guy stuck managing a midwestern casino and yearning to go back to Vegas, would be more entertaining than anything in ‘Reindeer Games.’