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Reindeer Games

movie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Reindeer Games

Starring: Ben Affleck, Charlize Theron
Director: John Frankenheimer
Rated: R
RunTime: 118 Minutes
Release Date: February 2000
Genre: Suspense

*Also starring: Dennis Farina, James Frain, Ashton Kutcher, Gary Sinise, Danny Trejo, Dana Stubblefield, Donal Logue, Clarence Williams III

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

Pen pals have been reduced to a relic thanks to e-mail and cell phones have made Western Union virtually passe. There is yet room, though, for good old-fashioned correspondence by mail, and 2000 could turn out the year of the longhand prison notes. In John Grisham's latest thriller, "The Brethren," three mischievous ex-judges concoct a scam from their jail cells involving the writing of love letters to people on the outside who have advertised their lonely hearts in gay magazines, only to blackmail them when they get back a batch of amorous responses. In "Reindeer Games," thrill- king John Frankenheimer helms a fast-paced, slyly comic tale of betrayal which begin with a prison correspondence and concludes with a slam-bang series of twists and turns in no way as surprising as the resolutions in Neil Jordan's "The Crying Game" or M. Night Shyamalan's "The Sixth Sense," but I challenge the audience to unravel the design by mid-point.

"Reindeer Games" is unfortunately not a step forward for Frankenheimer, best known for deeper, more resonant thrillers like "Seven Days in May" which was, unlike his current offering, a believable story about a design to overthrow the government. Nor can it compare to his towering "Manchurian Candidate" made thirty-eight years ago, which featured the strange but plausible experiences of a decorated Korean War veteran and his mother's machinations to advance her husband's career. In fact, credibility is the one element sorely lacking in this sometimes convoluted drama, which like so many B-grade tinglers deals with a bad guy who could have won the day if only he had blown away the hero at obvious points in the story.

"Reindeer Games" is a noir project which in former times would have been filmed in black and white to accent its bleak character and cynical attitude. The story opens in a Michigan prison where Rudy Duncan (Ben Affleck) has done five years for car theft and is to be released in two days. His mind has been kept active by his cellmate, Nick (James Frain), who has periodically read him ardent letters from a woman named Ashley (Charlize Theron) whom he does not know but has established an epistolary relationship through a magazine ad. On the day after Nick is stabbed during a food fight, Rudy's sentence ends. When he sees a woman waiting to drive away with Nick who meets Ashley's description he sees his opportunity. Passing himself off as Nick, he establishes a quick, erotic relationship with her, but when fun in a motel is broken up by a gang of thugs led by Ashley's brother Gabriel (Gary Sinese), the group become involved in a complex scheme to rob a casino on an Indian reservation. Since Nick had worked as a security guard there before landing in jail, the gang considers him the key to the break-in, not believing Rudy's story that he is not Nick at all but simply an impersonator.

Though Ehren Kruger's script cleverly negotiates the twists- -which begin with Rudy's identity crisis and pile up two-thirds of the way through the story--the direction is Frankenheimer lite. Whereas his "Ronin," a similar tale of double-crosses which made us wonder who can be trusted--contained some of the great car chases in movie history (he directed "Grand Prix," remember)--this time around J.F. throws around all too many implausible coincidences, casting the thugs as interchangeable parts with Steppenwolf's eminent Gary Sinise a one-note, off-the-wall nut. Moreover unlike performers like Laurence Olivier, Burt Lancaster, and Robert De Niro whom Frankenheimer utilized wonderfully in his other works, Ben Affleck does not work as a noir tough guy but comes across more like a recent member of the University of Michigan's Alpha Sigma Rho chapter.

Even if you're not a big fan of this genre, you can enjoy it for the gorgeous scenery, and I don't mean the snow-capped roads of British Colombia where it was filmed. Charlize Theron, the hottest actress in Hollywood today, is the one to watch here (as she is anywhere else that she appears). Not exactly the sort who'd correspond with a jailbird while whiling away the hours sewing until he got released, her performance as Ashley is the most pleasing part of this popcorn piece.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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