Ending of 'Games' ruins all the fun
By JASON HAMMONTREE
Scene Movie Critic
Director John Frankenheimer set the benchmark for political thrillers almost 40 years ago with the classic 1962 film "The Manchurian Candidate." In the years that followed, he dropped from the Hollywood radar until he returned to the big screen with 1998's "Ronin," a film largely panned and notable only for its car chases (which were splendid).
His new action-thriller, "Reindeer Games," like "Ronin," breaks little new ground in the genre but is still enjoyable and stylish, and probably one of the better films of the new year. Keep in mind, though, that January and February are the known dumping grounds for studio films that didn't do well in audience previews, so this isn't saying much.
"Reindeer Games" tells the story of Rudy Duncan (Ben Affleck), a convicted car thief with only three days left in his prison sentence. His cellmate, Nick (James Frain, "Hilary and Jackie"), gets out at the same time, but unlike Rudy, he has a beautiful young woman, Ashley (Charlize Theron), waiting for him. Nick met Ashley through a convict magazine, and the two have fallen in love from six months of writing letters. But Ashley has no idea what Nick looks like.
A jail riot just two days before Rudy and Nick's release occurs and, wouldn't you know it, Nick is killed. Rudy then decides to impersonate Nick (for the obvious reason of getting together with Ashley) and the new couple is off to enjoy the holidays. Only, someone wants Nick/Rudy more than Ashley: Gabriel (Gary Sinise), Ashley's brother and small time criminal. He needs Nick's help to rob a casino on Christmas Eve where Nick once worked. Of course, Nick isn't really Nick, and so the fun and chaos begins.
To reveal any more of the plot would ruin it, but the rest of the picture is full of twists, characters changing loyalties and lots of surprises to keep the audience guessing. Ultimately, the script gets carried away with making it so unpredictable that, inevitably, the ending is a bit unbelievable. A rather engaging film is spoiled with a disappointing finale.
And for that, the blame must fall to the screenwriter. Writer Ehren Kruger is riding a hot streak. He penned last year's "Arlington Road" and became the anointed follower of Kevin Williamson as the writer of this winter's "Scream 3." Both of those films were good, but also had terrible endings. He seems to like the excessive and both "Arlington Road" and "Scream 3" were arguably illogical. "Reindeer Games" runs into the same problem. It's just too much of a good thing.
In spite of this final flaw, a director of Frankenheimer's background is at least going to deliver and keep you entertained.
He is helped by his stars, who make the most of their respective roles. Affleck ("Dogma," "Armageddon") plays the hardened convict with great cynicism and grumpy fun. He has lied to Ashley about his identity and so he is acutely aware of the possible deception going on around him. There's an intelligence to his character that is often lacking in thrillers of this kind.
Theron ("Mighty Joe Young," "The Cider House Rules") plays Ashley as a woman just looking for love, until her true intentions are revealed. And Gary Sinise ("Forrest Gump," "Snake Eyes") has devilish fun as the small time crook, who has never actually committed a robbery before, but still behaves like he is indeed a bad ass.
There was one oddity to the film: the end of February is a weird time to release a film using the Christmas holiday as a central element of the film (especially with the spring-like weather the country's been having). It uses the familiar sights and sounds of Christmas in a very humorous manner, and the audience would have probably appreciated it much more had they been given the chance to see it in the freezing cold of December, with the ambiance of Christmas in full force.
"Reindeer Games" is a bit like Christmas itself; truly pretty good, but a bit overdone.
3 and 1/2 out of 5 shamrocks
All Scene Stories for Thursday, March 2, 2000