Reindeer Games Directed by John Frankenheimer "Quit talking and shoot the motherfucker!" barked a guy a couple of rows behind me at a screening of Reindeer Games, inviting murmurs of appreciation from the crowd and a couple of conspiratorial whoops. You know a film's in trouble when somebody shouts out what he thinks the audience is feeling (This sucks!) and it turns out he's right. You know a film is in even more trouble when it's being shown free of charge to anybody who could score a pass and it inspires that kind of disappointed incredulity. And you know a film is in deep, deep, deep trouble, Marianas Trench trouble, when it's a noisy, bloody, macho action film?the kind of picture young men killing time will usually decide to enjoy even if it stinks and the crowd rebels.
But Reindeer Games, directed by John Frankenheimer from a script by Ehren Kruger, commits this moviemaking misdemeanor frequently and heedlessly. If you cut out all the talking-bad-guy scenes, then cut out the scenes where characters rehash the plot (and even point out how convoluted and unlikely it is), the picture would be about 45 minutes long. Granted, Rudy has to do a certain amount of fast talking given the setup for the story, which actually isn't half bad. Affleck's Rudy is doing time for boosting cars; his cellmate Nick (James Frain) has festooned their cell with photos of Ashley (Charlize Theron), a woman he's fallen in love with via the U.S. Postal Service and who doesn't know what Nick looks like. Nick gets iced in a cafeteria brawl just two days before their scheduled release. Leaving prison, Rudy sees Ashley waiting outside the gates for the boyfriend she doesn't know is dead; he makes a snap decision to assume Nick's identity long enough to do a little hard time in bed with Ashley. After a vigorous bout of lovemaking in a seedy motel?in typical movie fashion, you can tell it's vigorous because they knock over furniture?they settle into a romantic fling, but their bliss is disrupted by the appearance of Ashley's brother, Gabriel (Gary Sinise), a fearsome trucker-cum-gunrunner who wants to knock over a casino. Gabriel knows from reading Ashley's letters that Nick (the guy Rudy is pretending to be) used to be a security guard at an Indian casino; Gabriel wants to use Nick/Rudy's inside knowledge of the place to rob it. So now Rudy's deception has been squared: not only must he fake knowledge of Ashley's life to stay in her bed, he must fake inside knowledge of a casino he's never been to in order to help a bunch of goons knock it over.
I read the script to Reindeer Games last year and was fairly impressed by it. It's trashy and glib in the 90s macho action-flick tradition (think Lethal Weapon or half of Bruce Willis' movies), but it also had a 40s noir aspect, setting up an identity shell game and playing it out until the final reels. I could understand why Dimension Films, a Miramax sister company that specializes in genre pictures, would lavish around $40 million on the movie: on first glance, it seems perfectly commercial, and the snowy setting and bursts of savage violence offer plenty of opportunities for a resourceful director to shine. Kruger's writing has been transferred more or less intact to the screen, but, as it turns out, that's part of the problem. On paper, all the discussion of plot mechanics and "Is this guy who he says he is?" goes down fairly easy, but onscreen it tends to call attention to the unbelievability of the whole affair.
Most of Hitchcock's films have plots that are moronic when you think about them for longer than five minutes. (Vertigo is my favorite: how did the bad guy know for certain that Jimmy Stewart would collapse while trying to save the impostor Madeleine from jumping off the bell tower? And how did the bad guy sneak past Stewart and the cops after he threw his wife's body out of the window?) Hitchcock, like most great suspense directors, avoided the whole problem by either sprinting breathlessly through the plot so you didn't have time to ponder it, or else immersing the audience so deeply in the story and characters that they had meatier things to think about. Frankenheimer is a master filmmaker whose intelligence and versatility require no defense here. It's puzzling, frankly, that he didn't adopt the same attitude as Hitchcock, cutting the self-conscious, repetitious chatter (Gabriel gets snowed about half a dozen times, by really lame lies) and rocketing from set piece to set piece, as he did in 1998's intellectually lightweight but playful and exciting Ronin.
It doesn't help that the lead role is filled by Affleck. He can be sensationally effective in certain parts?the lovelorn comic artist in Chasing Amy, the bully-boys in Dazed and Confused and Boiler Room. But in genre pictures like this film and Armageddon, he has a tendency to swagger in italics, as if he's trying to indulge in stereotypical he-man posturing and send it up at the same time (he doesn't quite have the matinee idol chops to pull this off as successfully as, say, Bruce Willis or Mel Gibson or George Clooney?all of whom would have worked better). And he's too men's-magazine pretty; he doesn't look or talk as if he's lived. In Reindeer Games, his narrow head, square jaw and short haircut suggest a young Burt Lancaster. This might be intentional: Frankenheimer made five films with Lancaster, and a scene in the film in which Affleck is pursued through hilly woods by the bad guys and then rolls down a hill to escape them is almost an exact reference to a Lancaster stunt in Frankenheimer's awesome World War II action picture The Train (1964). But Affleck seems more frat brat than ex-con. He doesn't suggest real menace like Lancaster, a one-time street tough who seemed quite capable of violence in real life. Norman Mailer, a violent man who wrote a whole book on Gary Gilmore, once said he was never as unnerved as the first time he shook hands with Lancaster and got a close look at those ice-blue eyes.
The film isn't a total wash. A couple of sequence are thrilling (particularly one in which Affleck, handcuffed to a motel bed by the criminal gang, escapes and tries to sneak out of the building while members of the gang are wandering around the place, forever in danger of running into him by accident. Yet this, too, suggests an earlier, better scene in The Train?the sequence where Lancaster's French Resistance fighter slips out of a Nazi-guarded bed-and-breakfast and sneaks around town committing acts of sabotage). The supporting performances are solid, particularly Clarence Williams III as one of the baddies (a favorite Frankenheimer actor, he was terrifying as a blackmailer in 52 Pick-Up). And the photography is superb. The director and his photographer, Alan Caso, give the snowy, wooded landscapes a desolate beauty that suggests Robert Aldrich at his most aggressive and cynical. But it's not enough to distinguish the movie overall. The Island of Dr. Moreau, which Frankenheimer directed as a gun-for-hire, is a mess, and some people consider it a terrible film, but it has more personality, and gives more of a sense of Frankenheimer's bleak, black sense of humor.
Reindeer Games is a professional enough piece of work, but it's not worthy of the director's time. On some level, I suspect Frankenheimer sensed this; it might explain why he didn't grab the script by the ears and wrestle it into sensible shape?and why he sometimes amuses himself by referencing his earlier, better movies. (When Rudy cases the casino, he's disguised in a cowboy outfit that suggests Lawrence Harvey's Hopalong Cassidy ensemble in The Manchurian Candidate.)
At the risk of alienating a man I consider a friend, I have to ask what Frankenheimer stands to gain by making a film like this. Obviously, reentry into Hollywood's directorial A-list?but is the goal attainable, and is directing disposable action trash the best way to go about it? There was a time, approximately 1962-1975, when he was on the industry's short list. He fell off because of substance abuse problems and other bad personal and professional decisions (he's been very frank in admitting them). Yet recently he engineered one of the most stunning artistic comebacks in movies, winning four Emmys for made-for-cable movies in five years. Frankenheimer is 70 now, but unlike other filmmakers in his age range (Clint Eastwood springs to mind), he doesn't make films in a leisurely, meandering old-man style; he's tough and sharp and fleet-footed, and his command of composition and cutting puts most younger filmmakers to shame. (The twentysomething rich-kid directors in Hollywood wouldn't know how to properly frame a widescreen closeup if their nanny's life depended on it.)
But cable allows him to demonstrate his versatility and absolute commitment, both in terms of style and subject matter, and it appears that the feature film world does not. His Against the Wall, a great HBO film about the Attica riots, might be the toughest film about the horrifically fucked-up politics of the modern penal system; 1997's George Wallace, a TNT movie that starred Sinise, was a tour de force, leaping between black-and-white and color, historical docudrama and liberal horror, with equal facility. And yet, when he tries to make features in Hollywood, the best he can do is gun-for-hire work in the hardcore action film genre?a genre he was influential in creating (see The Train and Black Sunday), but which exercises perhaps 10 percent of his potential as an artist. Reindeer Games is about a robbery, but the real robbery occurs offscreen. Studio politics, ageism and Frankenheimer's own eagerness to get back on the A-list have conspired to keep a great director from making great movies on great subjects.