Rated R - Running Time: 1:45 - Released 2/25/00

The fact that the first plot development in John Frankenheimer's thriller Reindeer Games stems from a prison cook lacing the Jell-O with dead cockroaches should be enough to warn away any intelligent moviegoers. Unfortunately, it didn't deter Ben Affleck, Charlize Theron, and Gary Sinise, all talented actors who probably did not realize what a Christmas turkey they were stuck in until after they had signed their contracts. One can't blame them, though. Frankenheimer has among his directorial credits such classics as The Manchurian Candidate and Birdman Of Alcatraz (both from 1962), and writer Ehren Kruger's Arlington Road was not at all bad for a freshman effort. But Reindeer Games is so full of outrageous (read: unbelievable) situations, gaping plot holes, self-conflicting characters, and even simple continuity errors, that the proven talent of its three leads fails to make a substantial difference.

Ben Affleck plays Rudy Duncan, a car thief finishing up his term in Iron Mountain Prison, Michigan, for manslaughter after a botched car theft. He and his cellmate Nick (James Frain) are both about to be released, and Nick is very excited about finally meeting Ashley (Theron), with whom he has been exchanging letters for 6 months. He found Ashley through a magazine ad and has never seen her in person, but their cell is plastered with her photos, and Rudy has not failed to notice how attractive she is. When Nick is killed in a prison riot stemming from the cockroach incident, Rudy decides to adopt Nick's identity, at least until he can make it a few times with Ashley. But soon after their meeting, he is visited by her brother Gabriel (Sinise), who wants his help robbing an Indian casino called The Tomahawk. You see, the real Nick used to work there, and he has told Ashley in his letters that the place would be easy to knock over on Christmas Eve because the staff is short and the security lax.

Rudy tells Gabriel that he's not Nick. Then Gabriel threatens to kill him, so he tells him that he is Nick. Then it turns out he doesn't really know anything about The Tomahawk, so he tries again to admit he's not Nick. Then Gabriel threatens him again, so . . . this is the kind of brilliant scriptwriting we see throughout the film, folks. After an excruciatingly stupid series of events which result in a half dozen dead Santas, then it's time to settle in for the multiple-twist ending. If one weren't already gaping at the screen from the sheer idiocy of all that precedes it, Ehren's convoluted finale might actually be forgivable. But by the time it rolls around, we have long since lost any hope of suspending our indignant disbelief, and it's clear that at some point in the process, Frankenheimer just stopped caring.

As the story goes on, we are continually forced to swallow the changes in character of people we thought we knew. Theron's character, especially, reinvents herself about every 20 minutes, and she seems at a loss as to how to achieve any semblance of credibility. People believe the lies of others when it serves to further the storyline, and then stop believing when it's necessary for the same purpose. And as this anemic story wends its way from one credibility gap to another, our three leads try desperately to act as if any of this stuff could actually happen. A valiant effort, but a failure nonetheless.

Copyright 2000 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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