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'Reindeer Games': Wild Sledding

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 25, 2000


    'Reindeer Games' Ben Affleck falls in love with Charlize Theron in "Reindeer Games." (Dimension)
Any movie that starts out with five dead Santas sprawled in the new-fallen snow is okay by me.

And that would be John Frankenheimer's mean and lowdown thriller "Reindeer Games." It's a slay-ride in the white stuff marked by excessive amounts of violence, cynicism, treachery and bad manners. In fact, here's a film that so merrily thumbs its nose at propriety in exchange for visceral thrills, and at probability in exchange for the really cool plot twist, that it checks in as the guiltiest pleasure since "The 13th Warrior."

The film is really of a piece with one of Frankenheimer's great films of the past--not "The Manchurian Candidate" or "Seconds" or "Seven Days in May" from so early in his career, but with his virtuoso spin on an Elmore Leonard novel, "52 Pick-Up." The story is so Elmore Leonard that you'd suspect it came from one of that American master's 100 percent brass-knuckle books. It's set in Leonard's frequent stomping ground, the great state of Michigan. It's also smack in the middle of Leonard's scabby universe full of blue-collar psychopaths of eerie vividness. It boasts a not-quite-honest blue-collar hero who discovers multiple resiliences within himself as his ordeal unreels across 92 very fast and intense minutes. But it's not from Leonard, but from an original screenplay by Ehren Kruger.

The dead Santas, either bled out by velocity trauma or roasted like chestnuts on an open fire, are the alarming detritus of a Christmas Eve armed robbery (in a Native American casino in the snowy North) gone way wrong. The movie then rewinds its plot by six days to uncover the moves that led to the mayhem. And what ends in mayhem must begin in mayhem, yes?

Indeed, it begins in a citadel of mayhem: a stone hard-timers' joint, the Iron Mountain penitentiary. A day or two before Nick (James Frain) is to get out of a two-year ride, he catches his death from a cold shiv thrust into his guts from no less a personage than Mr. Dana Stubblefield of our home team. Fortunately, Mr. Stubblefield does not represent the Washington Redskins but is under contract as an actor, playing a con called the Alamo. After the job he does on Nick, I know I will always remember the Alamo, particularly in my nightmares.

When Nick dies, that leaves his cellmate and our hero Rudy Duncan (the always engaging Ben Affleck) with an interesting dilemma: He is getting out on the same day, and he knows that Nick has been corresponding with a young woman named Ashley who will be waiting for him at the prison gates. Unaccountably, she has fallen in desperate love with Nick; more unaccountably, she is supermodel beautiful, and one look at Ashley (Charlize Theron) in the snow and more than Rudy's nose gets red. Rudy knows he can't tell her Nick is dead. He tells her what I'd tell her, too (it's Charlize Theron, for crying out loud!): that he's Nick.

But it turns out that Ashley has some baggage in the form of an older brother, Gabriel (Gary Sinise, in full satanic flower), a truck-drivin' gunrunner with larceny on his mind. Gabriel, with his crew of ultra-nasties (including Clarence Williams III, who co-starred in "52 Pick-Up," and Danny Trejo, a muscular, tattooed actor who always plays an ex-con because he is an ex-con), forcibly takes over Nick's life, demanding Nick's help in robbing the casino where Nick once worked.

You see the problem. Nick isn't Nick. Nick is dead. Nick is actually Rudy pretending to be Nick, which leads to the movie's most resonant theme--impostor dread. You know the dream? Most famously, actors have it all the time: You discover yourself onstage, in a production, in costume, with other actors talking to you, but you don't know the part. It varies by profession, of course. In my case, I'm writing with nothing to say (no smart comments from the peanut gallery). That's Rudy's reality: He's playing someone and if he fails he dies, but he's just improvising off clues of memory from his years in the cell with Nick.

But do you see the other problem? It's that the film's central situation is somewhat unwieldy: It's the motif of capture. Rudy is a hostage, but he's not. He has to be free to roam with the gang in their planning, but they have to lock him up at night. In a closet? No, they're staying in motels, so they stash him in a room, chained to the bed. Believable? Not hardly, not for a second.

This unavoidable clumsiness keeps producing awkward scenes: Why doesn't Rudy just start yelling in a restaurant, where he has plenty of opportunity? When he breaks away during a casino scouting mission, he flees into the woods where nobody will notice him instead of into the manager's office 25 feet away. In this long, central passage, Frankenheimer strains credulity so forcefully that it comes to seem elastic. If you can't go with the absurdity, the movie just won't work for you.

But he offers plenty in return. A pro's pro, Frankenheimer keeps coming up with new gags to keep the situation interesting. An underwater rescue, in which the reluctantly heroic Rudy blows an opening in the ice with a shotgun from underneath it, is a showy enough trip; the surprise that casino executive Dennis Farina (a wonderful, always underappreciated actor) pulls out of his safe is showier still. And Rudy's skill as an auto thief keeps paying dividends. He knows how to get in and out of places, how to hot-wire a car; he can play reindeer games with anyone.

Best of all is a final twist so twisted that it seems to twist in under the power of its own torque alone. If you think it over, it almost makes sense.

In any event, what you've just seen may not pass any probability examinations, but it's been a zesty ride the whole way. It's major fun for bad boys and girls; it should guide your sleigh tonight.

REINDEER GAMES (104 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for excessive violence, profanity and bad manners.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company


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