Reindeer Games (review)

Messy Christmas

Movies like Reindeer Games tend to send me into a manic/depressive spiral. The depression comes first, when I contemplate how utterly bummed out lousy movies make me feel. That’s when I can almost convince myself that it must be me — I’ve seen too many movies to take any delight in them or be surprised by them anymore. The manic phase hits quickly after that, and typically manifests itself as something like rage: That’s right, blame the victim! The hundreds of movies I’ve seen over the last few years didn’t make The Mummy or Cradle Will Rock or The End of the Affair or Sleepy Hollow any less enjoyable! Dammit, good movies are not diminished — and are in fact enhanced — by the experience and insight the viewer brings to it.

And then the depression returns. What’s the point of reviewing crap like Reindeer Games? People will still fork over their hard-earned cash see it, which in turn will encourage Hollywood to crank out yet more junk. Why do I even bother?
And then I’m mad again. How does a waste of celluloid like Reindeer Games ever get greenlighted in the first place? Who on Earth anointed Ehren Kruger Hot Young Screenwriter? Did anyone actually read this script before shooting began, or did they wait until after the point at which there was too much dough already invested to just write it off as a loss?

In 1996, Kruger won a prestigious Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — that’s the Academy that everyone thanks at the Oscars. The script he won with became Arlington Road, which, while hardly a perfect film, showed hints of promise and originality. But, boy, he really snowed the Nicholl people. His next produced script was for the half-hearted, by-the-numbers Scream 3. And then, as if not content to merely thumb his nose at the nice people at the fellowship who gave him money ($25,000) to write, he then proceeded to excrete Reindeer Games.

It’s hard to pick out the worst aspects of this atrociously written movie. Which is more unbelievable: that an apparently beautiful, sexy, intelligent, kind-hearted woman like Ashley (Charlize Theron: The Cider House Rules, The Astronaut’s Wife) would have to write to convicts to find the man of her dreams, or that Rudy (Ben Affleck: Boiler Room, Dogma) would buy her lame excuses for doing so? Ashley had actually been writing to Rudy’s pal and cellmate, Nick (James Frain: Elizabeth). But Nick is killed in a prison cafeteria fight (which is sparked by a ludicrous incident that is entirely unexplained and unsupported by the script) a few days before both he and Rudy were to be released (and how likely is it that two presumably randomly assigned cellmates would be up for release on the same day?). So Rudy decides to meet Ashley when he’s released and pretend to be Nick. It’s — gack! — love at first site.

But then Ashley’s brother, Gabriel (Gary Sinise: The Green Mile, Snake Eyes), turns up — seems he read some of Nick’s letters to sis and now wants “Nick’s” help in knocking over an Indian casino on Christmas Eve… the very casino in which Nick once worked as a security guard, as he mentioned in one of his letters to Ash.

Okay, action movies can get away with a bit of ridiculousness, but at some point, internal logic and consistency needs to kick in. Rudy, of course, knows nothing about this casino, so he immediately protests loud and long that he is not Nick. When that looks as if it’s gonna garner him a bullet in the brain (and how I wish Gabriel had obliged), he changes tactics and bluffs his way along as best he can. But before too long, Rudy has proven beyond any doubt that he knows nada about the casino’s security procedures or indeed the place’s very layout. So why the hell do Gabriel and his gang continue to believe every word out of Rudy’s mouth? In any action/thriller/crime caper/whatever with even an ounce of self-respect, Rudy would have been dead before the end of the first reel.

While his characters all flounder around for the entire midsection of the film, Kruger pads things out with a lot of absurd dialogue that wants to come across as black comedy but can’t seem to manage it, and scenes that wheel around endlessly, repeating the same information umpteen times without even an attempt to liven up the proceedings with wit or charm. There’s not one sympathetic or likable character to be found here — they’re all just pointlessly stupid, pointlessly violent, or both — and they do things and say things that they’d never do or say if they weren’t characters in a movie. One laughably awful scene has Ashley and Gabriel speaking of their relationship in the kind of precise, expository terms they’d never use if Kruger didn’t have an eavesdropping Rudy lurking nearby. Another even more laughably awful scene — which features quite possibly some of the worst dialogue I’ve ever heard in a movie — sends Gabriel off on a bizarre rant about his life as a truck driver, and how this drove him to crime. All those other aspiring Nicholl Fellows must have submitted incoherent ramblings written in crayon on toilet paper if work like this was enough to put Kruger at the top of the heap.

The cast is just about universally painful. Affleck simply is not believable as a hardened criminal who has spent five years in jail, and he cannot carry a film — he’s a character actor, and he’d do well to remember that. And he has zero chemistry with Theron, who is way out of her narrow range here. Even the usually reliable Sinise starts out so over the top that he has nowhere to go when he needs to ratchet things up.

But I can’t rag too much on actors when the blame lies elsewhere. Director John Frankenheimer (Ronin) deserves a slap, but the numerous problems with Reindeer Games stem from the writing. Overly violent without ever being suspenseful, and utterly predictable — until the “surprise” ending that comes as a something of a shock only because it’s so preposterous as to make no sense at all — this is one of the most excruciatingly boring movies I’ve ever had my butt go numb in the middle of.

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