I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

Reindeer Games

tn_reindeergamesIn the popular song and cartoon RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER, “reindeer games” are the fun group activities that all the popular reindeers enjoy but Rudolph is excluded from due to his low social caste. In the movie REINDEER GAMES the character “Monster” (Gary Sinise) uses it as a synonym for “funny business,” something that he threatens Rudy (Ben Affleck) not to participate in. This misuse of Christmas terminology doesn’t bother Rudy or probly occur to him, but it does bug him when Clarence Williams III keeps referring to “Santa’s dwarves.” So he does have a certain amount of respect for Christmas tradition.

REINDEER GAMES is not a Christmas movie in the sense that it’s about Christmas, or about somebody coming to a realization about the meaning of Christmas, at least not a very convincing one. But I can guarantee you this much: it takes place in December, with a heist planned for Christmas Eve, and with the participators all dressed as Santa Claus. So there are some discussions of cranberries and what not. Maybe a mention of sugar plums, I can’t remember for sure. (Have you ever had sugar plums? They’re actually really fuckin good. I wish I knew a place that sold them. I might have visions of them dancing in my head now that I remembered them.)

mp_reindeergamesBen Affleck, in an early draft of his grimacing tough guy character from THE TOWN, plays Rudy, convicted car thief, about to get paroled, same with his cellmate and best friend Nick (James Frain), who’s extra excited about it because he’s gonna hook up with his penpal girlfriend Ashley, who he knows from many photos and love letters is Charlize Theron. Unfortunately Nick gets shivved protecting Rudy, so when Rudy sees poor Ashley waiting outside the prison he gives in to the little devil on his shoulder and introduces himself as Nick. Pretending to be Nick does achieve the important goal of access to Charlize Theron’s classified zones, but also gets him mixed up in a plot where some dangerous dipshits are gonna force him to help rob an Indian casino they mistakenly think he used to work at.

Sinise’s Monster is the leader of the villains, with an all star cast of henchmen: Donal Logue (BLADE) as Pug, Danny Trejo (everything) as Jumpy, and Clarence Williams III (everything else) as Merlin. The first two don’t get much to do, except Trejo has one funny part where he suggests that because of Christmas’s importance to the economy “an intelligent country would legislate a second such gift giving holiday. Create, say, a Christmas 2, late May, early June, to further stimulate growth.” CHRISTMAS 2 would actually be kind of a good title for this movie.

Williams gets a few more good lines, like after they ambush and brutally assault Rudy in his hotel room Merlin isn’t really paying attention to all that and observes, “They got a shitload of cookies in here.”

I always avoided this because it had a bad reputation, and I wasn’t sold on Affleck, and etc. But I knew it was John Frankenheimer, and they eventually come out with his director’s cut (he’d been pressured to shorten it, even the sex scene with Charlize! What the fuck!?) Actually I think this is a pretty good movie, not too much in the “trying to be Tarantino” feel, more of a neo-noir, what with this whole mistaken identity plot. And there’s some Elmore Leonard in there, I think. The bad guys are dumb but scary, the hero is not exactly a mastermind either, he’s just smart enough to catch that these guys don’t know what they’re doing, and to try to bullshit them when he realizes they’ll kill him if they understand that he’s the wrong guy.

And I like that the crime is small time – a failing Indian casino, almost empty because it’s almost Christmas. He says there’s $5 million in the safe, but he has no idea, he’s just making shit up. He’s a good noir protagonist – self aware enough that you like him, unlucky enough that he’s always digging the hole deeper and getting the shit beat out of him. Theron is good too, way too naive, way too in love with this guy, you kind of feel sorry for her, if you trust her.

It’s a good tone. Not too jokey really, but funny sometimes. Dennis Farina has a small part as manager of the casino. In a meeting with tribal leaders, defending the quality of the club, you might be thinking he’s some kind of hot shit mafia type or something. But you start to have suspicions when he arrogantly says, “By the way, you show me another buffet that offers both Coke and Pepsi. Don’t even bother looking because it doesn’t exist, okay? So now what else do you people want me to do?”

This was Frankenheimer’s last theatrical release, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s solid old school filmatism that passes for a 2000s movie. Not losing his magic, not bending over backwards to appeal to stupider generations, just finding a good balance. The script is by Ehren Kruger, who wrote a couple pretty good things (this, the American THE RING) and some really bad ones (TRANSFORMERS 2, SCREAM 3, also he’s threatening to remake VIDEODROME).

There are some stories about this movie because Vin Diesel originally was cast in it, but is not in the movie. There’s a famous story that supposedly Frankenheimer wanted him to wear a muscle shirt but he said “I only show my guns in a Vin Diesel film” and got fired for this defiance. When I finally saw the movie I couldn’t help but notice that Gary Sinise is wearing a muscle shirt through alot of the movie. I thought holy shit, did a then-unknown Vin Diesel really get replaced by Academy Award winner Gary Sinise? But researching this theory I came across an interview with Danny Trejo where he says Diesel was just playing Pug, a flunky to the Sinise character who ended up being played by Donal Logue. According to Trejo’s version of events Diesel left the movie of his own accord to star in THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS, but was very loyal and had a hard time making that decision. It’s interesting because here they are about to release a fifth FAST AND FURIOUS movie, and I honestly don’t think that first one would be popular enough for a sequel without the raw power of Diesel’s charisma. Although maybe if things had been different he would’ve turned REINDEER GAMES into a monster hit and THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS would be an underrecognized oddity starring Donal Logue as a macho street racer.

But back to REINDEER GAMES. Unfortunately I gotta tell you I hate (SPOILER) the twist at the end. It didn’t make me retro-actively hate the entire movie like the twist in (SPOILER) HIGH TENSION, but it’s pretty ridiculous. It’s that same blues theory, you just gotta play the song well, you don’t gotta put on the Peter Pan wires and fly over the audience doing an Eddie Van Halen solo at the end. This is a perfectly enjoyable crime story when taken at face value, it doesn’t need to have something secretly going on, in fact that showoffy bullshit takes away the small-time down-to-earthness that made the story appealing in the first place.

(BIGGER SPOILER) It doesn’t need a secret mastermind, a surprise betrayal, a faked death. When you find out what supposedly really happened it really doesn’t make any sense. He put on an act for six months in prison, faked his death, knew this would trick his cellmate into pretending to be him so he could trick some other guys into forcing this guy to rob a casino. It’s just not a good plan, it’s a miracle it even came anywhere close to working, and it would’ve been way easier just to rob the damn place himself.

And plus, the whistling! I despise that shit. In the opening the character in question is whistling “Let It Snow,” so when he shows up alive again at the end he’s whistling it again in what’s supposed to be a menacing context. One of those whistling bullies we’re all terrified by, I guess. I understand why he’s whistling it for us – to tell us “remember, this is the guy from the beginning.” But in his mind, within the world of the movie what is he thinking? Hey, he’ll remember that I was whistling this that one time when we were in the yard the day before we got out. That’ll really fuck with him.

I blame the ’90s. After SCREAM there was a wave of these things, all the horror movies had to be whodunits. And THE USUAL SUSPECTS. Always gotta be a reveal at the end. Stupid. But it’s Christmas, I’ll forgive it.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Saturday, December 25th, 2010 at 2:46 am and is filed under Crime, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

28 Responses to “Reindeer Games”

  1. Yeah, it’s good movie spoiled by a retarded ending. I really enjoyed this for the most part, but in the end I was just thinking “WTF that made no sense at all”. One of the worst endings I’ve seen in the last 10 years.

  2. billydeethrilliams

    December 25th, 2010 at 5:06 am

    Merry fuckin’ Christmas.

  3. There’s a version of the sex scene online that’s even more explicit than the slightly longer one in the “unrated” dvd. Version #3 definitely ranks with Original Sin, The Getaway and Friday the 13th Reboot for “whoa this is some REALLY unrated” sex. Release that one on bluray and it’ll sell like hotcakes.

    And yeah, this movie actually lost me about three twists in – the entire middle section just treads water as Affleck escapes, then gets caught again, or comes back by his own accord, or gets tortured for information. It’s like a skipped record, and then the final twist really adds insult to injury. And the last two minutes, with him acting like Santa, dropping stolen money in everyone’s mailbox and then eating Christmas Dinner? What in the world was that?

    Oh yeah, Merry Christmas to Vern and all! Best site on the interwebs.

  4. Hey if I got out of a long bid and saw Charlize Theron waiting outside I’d introduce myself as Nick as well. Is the brotherly thing to do, better you than some other stranger who actually didn’t know Nick. So there goes another Christmasy theme for this one. The international is great, makes it look like some type of christmas themed sex thriller. So kudos on that Vern and Merry Christmas everyone.

  5. Should read “international poster” in the previous post. This is what happens when you drink Egg Nog too early in the day.

  6. Faliz Navidad!

  7. I haven’t seen this one but it sounds a lot like Employee of The Month (The one with Steve Zahn and Matt Dillon) which I liked. Maybe I should check this out.

  8. I’ve not read the spoiler section but will definitely check this out.

    I think you guys are a bit too hard on surprise endings though. Of course I don’t know what it is yet, but lemme ask you this: what would you rather have: this, or “Scream 3” (where the ending is apparently supposed to be a surprise, but won’t be to anybody who’s ever seen a movie before?)

  9. hamslime;

    Reindeer Games is nooooooothing like Employee of the Month. That movie is a massively underrated gem. RG is a slightly entertaining piece of shit.

    I just had to say something, its been years since I’ve heard somebody else reference Emp. of the Month. Unless they are talking about the godawful abortion that was the Dane Cook/Jessica Simpson Employee of the Month. God that movie makes me want to pull out my own eyeballs and perforate my eardrums.

  10. Merry Christmas inhabitants of the Verniverse!

  11. Merry Xmas Vern! I caught this one in the theater, and remember digging the tone at first, but turning cold as the writer kept piling on twist after twist after twist. The last was the worst, and you’re right about it not making a lick of sense in hindsight, but the film had been building to absurdity long before that.

    (SPOILERS)

    First Theron is surprised by Affleck’s abduction and we learn she’s Sinise’s sister, but not really (she’s really his lover, and in cahoots with the whole caper). These weren’t the only twists, but they’re the most prominent, and the way they played out made me feel like I was looking at the blueprints and not the final product; too showy, too knowing of story structure, and by the midway point the movie was already teetering for me when the big twist landed.

    I’m digging the holiday reviews Vern; I’ve already added “The Silent Partner” to my queue, so please keep ’em coming.

  12. Ok ok ok let me preface this by saying I don’t want to go off-topic again, but Vern, I just saw a very good film that you haven’t reviewed (or at least got a dedicated thread on). So let me throw a shout out for “Splinter”.

    It’s not by any means the best horror movie I’ve seen this year, but an unexpectedly good little thriller about parasitic spores that had me on the edge of my seat the whole way through. And without giving too much away, none of the central four characters is a total stereotype, although one particular character’s character “arc” seems pretty forced given what that character has previously done. Still that’s a minor gripe about an otherwise unexpectedly good film. I’d rank it below “Rogue” but definitely above “Detour”.

  13. I always liked Scream 3. Perhaps it is time to review the sequels? (Or maybe leave them for when number comes out.)

  14. The twist ending is a contrived twist ending for the sake of it, but apparently its what Hollywood at the time thought the kids wanted.

    I might add that Diesel/Sinise theory makes sense for Sinise (despite being a NeoCon) was big buddies with Frakenheimer in his last days and probably did it as a favor. Who knows?

    That said, I basically kinda enjoyed GAMES as I put it in another recent thread, it does play as a 40s/50s crime movie just given high tech pyrotechnics. Maybe an awkward hybrid, but its certainly watchable. Definately 3 Crashed/Resurrected Ben Afleck careers out of 5.

    Personally I liked that opening bit where Affleck bitches how the judge threw a book at him, and he got a longer jailterm than murderers.

    Vern – Now that you’re on a Frakenheimer kick, you need to review his last great little picture RONIN, his bizarre underrated Faust-retelling SECONDS and Frakenheimer’s last movie, PATH TO WAR which came out at the right time (2002) when governmental people were making the same fucking wrong mistakes the LBJ administration made.

    And also the expected Frakenheimer “classics” like MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE and SEVEN DAYS IN MAY, but also his Scott Glenn/Toshiro Mifune ninja flick THE CHALLENGE (aka SWORD OF THE NINJA).

  15. Paul – Sounds fascinating. Too bad we don’t have a Miscellaneous thread where we can post/talk about random shit that doesn’t involve other movies.

    Or two of those threads for that matter.

    Maybe a Nerd Shit thread would be cool too.

  16. Just wanted to congratulate you on yet another great review!
    I bought your books to practice my english and ended up on this site.

    Merry Christmas, and have badasss holidays!

  17. I just watched this movie and HATED it: the narration was horribly done, the wraparound story was needless, anti-dramatic, and annoying, I never once believed that Theron would sleep with any of these men, the plan made no sense, the twist made no sense, it takes too long, the dialogue was tinny, and I guessed the ending as soon as the cellmate was shived. It was just the obvious course of action.

    That said, the gag with Affleck hot wiring the car was indeed very clever. The whole of the climax would have been better if it hinged on this one twist instead of 15 horrible ones that need 5 minute monologues to explain.

    However, the film’s biggest problem is the casting. My lord is this movie poorly cast. Theron is just too damn hot and not white trash-y at all. If they got an actress with a bit of hick in her, or someone less perfectly stunning, it could have worked. But I don’t believe that a girl THAT hot who was THAT determined to get out of town would have had a plan this bad. It woulda been smarter to just go to a higher class bar, wear a short skirt, and marry a lawyer or something. Meanwhile, Affleck looks soft and not like an ex-con at all. He’s too damn middle of the road wholesome here. Gary Sinise is even worse. He just looks silly in his muscle shirt and bad facial hair. I never once believed anything he said. The dude from Grounded for Life sticks out real bad too. I know that they’re supposed to be unlikely criminals, but damn, these guys just weren’t impressive at all. If they had an entirely different cast, perhaps lead by someone like Steve Buscemi or…I donno who was popular in this time period. But, like, just about anyone other than this cast.

  18. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen this; ten years or so. And yeah, I agree: The surprise ending was a little contrived.

    Generally I’m not big on surprise endings.

    For some reason in a few scenes of this Ben Affleck reminded me of Bruce Willis – not in looks or anything, just a few mannerisms.

  19. RRA – we have a miscellaneous thread?

    I forgot about “Nerd Shit”. Which probably means everyone else has too… so… yeah.

  20. Paul – Click on “2” at the bottom of the article column on the front page, you’ll find it.

    Just saying, I wonder if bringing up random shit in his review sections now has the same reaction from Vern as mentioning to Tony Montana how hot his sister was.

  21. Man, I love this movie. In fact, I watched it last X-mas and it got me into the spirit.

    It would make a great double feature with another grossly underrated Let’s-Dress-Up-Like-A-Beloved-Icon-and-Rob-a-Casino Movie, 3000 Miles to Graceland.

  22. Speaking of “trying to be Tarantino” movies with Charlize Theron sex scenes, have you seen TWO DAYS IN THE VALLEY, Vern?

  23. Neal2zod if you do not at least hint where I can see this ununrated charlize theron sex scene I will be very upset.

  24. Christmas 2 is actually the holiday the evil Lithgow comes up with in Santa Clause: The Movie. Maybe review that next year, or in May/June.
    Welcome Lectrice. Ki love the idea of people learning to speak like Vern!

  25. SANTA CLAUS was a real doozy. Can’t believe John Carpenter almost directed that one.

  26. Basically if i had to reluctantly describe this information in a single word, it might be awesome. I’m sure it is a wonderful good article that deserves recognition. I enjoyed reading it. I completely trust you.

  27. Great stuff – mind if we send a link your way?

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