It’s getting so I don’t even mind having twist after shocking plot twist sprung in my face like snakes from a gag can of peanut brittle. So the bad guys turn out to be good, or the good guy was working for the other side, or pretending to be working for the other side—the double-back anti-twist with its low degree of difficulty—or she’s really a he. The more twist-addled a plot becomes, the less the audience cares what the truth is, and the revelations begin to offer rapidly diminishing returns.
Ten minutes into a movie like Reindeer Games, and you can’t believe a damn thing anyone’s saying; from there it’s a downhill slide of turnabouts that you know will keep coming until the last shot, so you just sit tight and disengage your brain from caring about any of these idiots’ motivations until John Frankenheimer’s eeny-meeny game finally lands on moe. Not that it matters, since the “real” truth is as unlikely as any other.
Frankenheimer, who directed the excellent Ronin along a one-twist trajectory worthy of North by Northwest, which it elegantly resembled, should know better. But this Christmas-release-pegged heist flick thrashes about in North Country snows, changing its mind at random until the director runs out of film. The best that can be said about it is that Charlize Theron indisputably does not turn out to be a he.
Then again, neither does Ben Affleck, the film’s miscast star. Reindeer Games opens on Affleck’s Rudy navigating his last days of prison with pal Nick. They’re two pussies in a pussy prison, having conversations that actually include confessed dreams of “walking out of here and walking into a relationship.” (Nick’s been exchanging hot mail with a gorgeous stranger named Ashley.) Because they’re this close to freedom, and because sophomoric irony is all this script’s rage, it’s a safe bet that there’ll be some last-minute unpleasantness. Anyone who’s seen a World War II movie in which a dreamy-eyed pilot won’t shut up about his girl back home (“My nickname is Dead Meat,” announces that character in the underrated Hot Shots!, by way of introduction) can guess it won’t be pouty, top-billed Affleck who takes a shiv to the ribs.
Sort of wanting to do the right thing by his late pal, and sort of wanting to get laid by the baby-faced Ashley (Theron), who’s expecting Nick’s emergence, Rudy passes himself off as Nick, and the two repair to a motel to reap the rewards of freedom in a messy bedroom scene. But not before playing getting-to-know-your-insecurities in a diner, where they engage in a ridiculous conversation in which Ben Affleck and Charlize Theron exchange worries that the other has found him/her ugly. “I thought maybe you didn’t like my jacket,” wheedles Ashley, amid other moronic trivialities. The mind boggles.
Not long into their R-rated thrashing, enter a cartoon band of Midwestern baddies led by greasy-haired, snaggle-toothed, skinny, sneering—no, not Gary Oldman; that was 1995—Gary Sinese as Gabe, Ashley’s thuggish brother. Sinese is so pumped up for this role that his head looks about the size of an orange. And what a likely crew he’s leading: The scarred Latino reads Business Week and talks economics; the big black guy has a sweet tooth that turns him into a 4-year-old. They want expert thief “Nick” to help them rob a Native American casino. Rudy can’t protest that he isn’t Nick, or he’ll lose his cooch. The possibility that the cooch has set up her incarcerated boyfriend for just this purpose is not an issue that preys on his mind much.
What happens for the rest of the film is a lot of violence with a subtheme of sadism, with an emphasis on people getting hurt, as well as gunplay, dart-play, water-pistol-play, 16-wheel-semi-play, and explosions. There’s also a great deal of running through the snow while guns boom overhead, plus a fetishistic motif of Affleck getting the tar beaten out of him. Watching blood run out of Affleck’s nose on a semi-constant basis is only slightly less disgusting than watching food spill out of Samantha Morton’s mouth throughout Sweet and Lowdown. Note to young Hollywood: Wipe!
The tiresome aggro is alleviated by shots of Theron mincing about in a miniskirt and thigh-highs, which she’s kind enough to wear amid the subzero temperatures of wherever they’re supposed to be. (Bonus: Bad bro likes to thump her over into the snow, away from the camera, the better to peek right up her pettipants.) And Ashley has had the foresight to pack her bikini, so that she can remove its top while also revealing a pivotal plot twist in a motel pool. And since the spawner of all things tediously but wackily violent, Quentin Tarantino, has decreed that the lowlifes-screw-up-a-heist plot is not sufficient unto itself without a comic motif of contrasting seriousness, references to the Christmas season romp uneasily throughout. Rudy (geddit?) is not sure if he wants to join in the crooks’ “reindeer games,” but he goes along, agreeing to bust the casino disguised as one of a six-man crew of store Santas and quoting seasonal song lyrics every time he fires a gun.
Even when most of the characters who’ve been annoying the daylights out of you develop big holes in them, the story limps on, revving itself up for a few more pointless surprises. But by this time, the script has taxed even the eagerest viewers. Why does Ashley break down into her I’m-so-scared-protect-me gibbers after Rudy suspects she’s set him up? Don’t the heavies know better than to pause to make jokes, turn around at the slightest noise, and—this must be seen to be believed—light cigarettes seconds before they’re about to kill Rudy? And if someone does pause to flick a lighter, is it really possible to…oh, never mind. It’s enough to make you hate Christmas. CP