Miramax // 2000 // 104 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Norman Short (Retired) // August 8th, 2000
The trap is set. The game is on.
Reindeer Games is the latest film from John Frankenheimer (Ronin, The Manchurian Candidate) and the latest DVD release from Dimension Films. This quick-paced thriller is a tale of mistaken identity, betrayals, and a big heist, expertly directed and well acted but suffering from a script that sometimes defies belief. Disney does a good job with the disc, however, with a terrific anamorphic transfer and even a commentary track. If you like the movie, you'll like this DVD.
Reindeer Games begins with cellmates Rudy (Ben Affleck -- Chasing Amy) and Nick (James Frain -- Titus, Elizabeth) eagerly awaiting release from prison in a few days. Rudy just wants to go home and have Christmas dinner, but Nick is eager to meet his pen pal, a lovely girl named Ashley (Charlize Theron -- Cider House Rules), a girl who apparently is one of those who write to lonely convicts, but looks entirely too pretty to be one. But when Nick is stabbed and Rudy finds out he has been killed, Rudy is left with a quandary after release. Temptation gets the better of him and he tells the lovely Ashley that he is Nick, and we are treated to a quick nude scene.
Rudy wishes he'd just gone home after all when it turns out that Ashley's brother Gabriel (Gary Sinise -- Forrest Gump) has also read Nick's letters and learned that he had once been a security guard at an upstate casino. He and his gun-running buddies have no robbery experience, but they figure with Nick's inside information they can pull off a Christmas heist of epic proportions. Unfortunately, Rudy isn't Nick and has to either invent this information or rely on second hand stories Nick told him in prison to stay alive. Too bad Rudy was only a car thief and not a real life robber.
The story goes through more twists and turns than a mountain road before coming to the heist itself, and then has a few more afterwards. Surprise seems to be the watchword of the film, but some of them are entertaining and really held my interest. Frankenheimer does a great job with the pacing and keeping the story moving along, and with his stylized lighting and muted color scheme gives the film a real gritty feel.
I should say that there are some fine performances in the film as well, particularly from Gary Sinise who seems to be able to metamorphose into whatever character he is playing. The often maniacal and rage-driven Gabriel is given intensity by Sinise that provides a real sense of danger and menace. Theron shows a wide range of emotions and can be anything the story requires as it goes along. Affleck gets a chance to play something a little different than his usual role and also gives a very professional turn.
Since Disney started opting for anamorphic transfers on most of their new releases, I've been quite pleased with the picture quality on their discs. This one is no exception. The picture quality is superb; with sharp detail, excellent color balance, and great contrasts between the brightly lit casino scenes and the muted blues and blacks of the nighttime and prison shots. The source print is pristine as you would expect from a brand new film, and the overall look is very film-like and smooth. Both a 2.35:1 anamorphic and a heavily cropped pan and scan transfer are offered, though I will have to send Gabriel over to visit anyone who decides to watch the "standard" option.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack does not disappoint either. It is very active, with frequent use of surrounds for ambient sound and directional placement. The front soundfield is wide and deep, with dialogue spaced across the whole width. Bass response and dynamic range are excellent as well, resulting in a total audio experience. I wouldn't exactly categorize it as one that will wake the neighbors, but it certainly works for the film.
First and foremost among the extra content is the commentary track by director John Frankenheimer. He is open and forthcoming about his choices with certain scenes, and gives lots of insight on the making of the film. I found it informative and interesting, and in many ways makes the disc. Other than the commentary, a six-minute production featurette (pretty standard stuff) and the theatrical trailer are all that we get, unless you count the Disney forced beginning trailers as extras, which I don't.
Not a thing wrong with this film that a new screenwriter wouldn't have fixed. The story takes a lot of turns, as I said, and each turn needs to be explained to the audience, and to the characters themselves. Usually this explanation takes place while someone holds a gun to someone else's head, just before they kill them, or maybe don't kill them, or maybe just plans to kill them later. There is far too much exposition necessary because of the way the plot moves along, and Frankenheimer shows mastery in not letting it bog down into a total confusing mess. The story comes perilously close to becoming a parody with the number of times you find out everything is not what it seems to be, and the ending is totally incongruous with the rest of the picture. I found myself saying "huh?" more than once and my suspension of disbelief shaken to the core more than once. Some of the turns are needless, such as when Rudy tries to tell Gabriel and company that he is not really Nick after all, then has to tell them he is to stay alive, then says he's not again, then he is, ad nauseum.
I have to hand it to the director and the actors that I did not end up hating the film after those major flaws in the story. While I can't say it was a "fantastic thrill ride" that some blurbs (and a website or two) claim, I actually liked the film overall. I just think it could have been much better.
Disney...what can you say about them? They have decided to bypass the Internet community and do not seek straightforward, honest reviews from sites like this one. We, and most of the Internet savvy DVD community, do not fit into their VHS style marketing demographic. Hence, we get the forced trailers at the beginning of each disc. Most players can skip past them with the chapter skip button, but not all. Pricing remains a bit steep as well. But I will give credit where it is due and they really did come through in the picture and sound quality departments, and adding the Frankenheimer commentary track is a real coup for his fans.
There is one troubling area with the soundtracks: you cannot switch language tracks or to the commentary track on the fly with the audio button on the remote. Instead, you have to go back to the menu, which is just annoying.
Fans of the film have nothing to fear and much to gain by purchasing this disc. If you have not already seen the film, then I suggest a rental; because I think the disc is worth seeing once and then you aren't stuck with it should you find the negatives outweigh the positives.
The screenwriter of Reindeer Games is given probation and admonished to refrain from needless plot twists that require exposition in the future. John Frankenheimer and the cast are totally acquitted for doing a great job with the script they were given. Disney is fined $1000 for wasting consumers' time with trailers before the film starts instead of offering them as extras in the Bonus section. But they are also commended for the fine work with the anamorphic transfer and terrific soundtrack, along with at least one quality bonus feature.
Review content copyright © 2000 Norman Short; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 104 Minutes
Release Year: 2000
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Director's Commentary
* Production Featurette