Reindeer Games (2000)
Reindeer Games (2000)

Genre: Action and Crime Drama Running Time: 1 hr. 44 min.

Release Date: February 25th, 2000 MPAA Rating: R

Director: John Frankenheimer Actors: Ben Affleck, Charlize Theron, Gary Sinise, Dennis Farina, Danny Trejo, Donal Logue, Clarence Williams III, James Frain




everal men in Santa Claus outfits lie in the snow, outlined in blood, adorned with bullet holes and twisted limbs and broken glass; something catastrophic has happened, and no one seems to have gotten out alive. Six days prior, cell mates Rudy Duncan (Ben Affleck) and Nick Cassidy (James Frain) have a mere three days before their sentences end at Iron Mountain Prison in Michigan. Duncan is serving a 5-year stint for grand theft auto, while many of his acquaintances have shorter bids for more heinous crimes, like rape. As the two chat about Ashley Mercer (Charlize Theron), Nick’s pen pal girlfriend who is supposedly waiting for him when he gets out – despite having never met – Rudy suggests that maybe it’s a scam and she doesn’t look like she appears in the many photographs sent with her letters.

For Rudy, his interests remain with locating a cup of hot chocolate and a slice of pecan pie and seeing his family. But with such a short amount of time before his release, the return of an inmate dubbed Alamo (Dana Stubblefield) spells trouble, as the hulking prisoner believes Rudy ratted him out. Sure enough, a riot over roaches in the holiday gelatin creates an opportunity for a shanking, though Nick gets in the way of the crude knife, losing his life in the process. Distraught but sympathetic to Cassidy’s wishes concerning Ashley, Duncan opts to locate the mystery woman when he’s let out; but rather than explaining the situation, he assumes the dead man’s identity instead.

This ruse is instantly unforgivable, especially since after an awkward lunch, in which Rudy is barely able to maintain the artifice, the two dash into a motel room to bound across the bed and roll onto the floor. At first, it’s a storybook romance, with Ashley being unexpectedly happy and bouncy, generous with purchasing clothing and gifts, and overjoyed to make the most of their isolation. “Just till the holidays, Nick,” Rudy guiltily tells himself, though he’s unable to dismiss the fact that Ashley is an absolute knockout.

“Watch your mouth! It’s Christmas.” Clearly designed to borrow from the success of the Christmastime premise of “Die Hard,” “Reindeer Games” similarly blends mystery, crime, action, and the wintery setting – along with amusing dialogue. Despite the severity of the villain – Gary Sinise as “Monster” Gabriel, who turns up demanding some favors of the wrong man – the script is peppered with humor, even from minor supporting roles, like that of Jumpy (Danny Trejo), who has some funny commentary on economics and keeping his shoes free of the blood spatter of his victims. As for the plot, the tables are eventually turned; the impersonator is the one to get scammed, his fraudulence resulting in life-and-death scenarios. Yet the levity persists, even when the stakes grow larger.

“Reindeer Games” soon becomes a tense heist movie, though the attention to laughs and one-liners generally overshadows the thrills. Affleck has an increasingly harder time staying convincing; his refusal to take things seriously or to at least behave as if his life is in danger is more and more disappointing. Though the script is chirpy and intermittently clever, layered with chases and action and violence, the lead character is a major weak spot. The antagonist is better, surrounded by idiosyncratic henchmen (also including Donal Logue and Clarence Williams III), but even his role is deadened by repetition. Only so many sarcastic gibes can be unleashed before they spoil the flow and the mood.

The pacing is also a touch off, partly due to the repetition of Rudy’s captivity and escape attempts, always awash with misplaced frivolity, but also because of the opening scene. Choosing to show audiences the outcome and aftermath of the climactic robbery, even though they won’t know exactly who makes it out alive, is a significant misstep. The finale brings back a comparably unnecessary voiceover narration, a few extra twists, showdowns, and lots of bloodletting and destruction, but even here there’s a slowness, a muddle of extraneous interactions, and unlikely delays in police intervention and executions. This is the kind of film in which amateurish baddies talk far too much before taking action. And those lengthy explanations reveal answers to overly complex, last-minute deceptions, which are so serpentine that they barely make sense.

– Mike Massie

  • 4/10