Judge Gordon Sullivan plays poker with Dasher and Dancer every other Tuesday.
Our review of Reindeer Games, published August 8th, 2000, is also available.
The trap is set. The game is on.
I've spent a long time appreciating "bad" movies, but in all that time I've yet to read a really good explanation about what makes bad movies fun. Sure, there are essays out there that extol the virtues of bad films, especially particular ones, but no one that I know of has developed a system for distinguishing "good" bad movies from "bad" bad movies. Having that kind of rubric would be really, really useful. As someone who likes the occasional bad movie, it can be hard to read the usual critics and get a sense if a film is okay to put on when I'm in the mood for a "bad" film, or if it's just really bad. Since there are few more acute disappointments in the world of cinema-going that expecting "bad" and getting "unwatchable," I wish I knew a foolproof way to distinguish the two without having to sit through them. I was hoping all the bad buzz around Reindeer Games would make it a guilty pleasure style bad film, but I'm here to say this is bad-bad, even in a reworked Director's Cut.
Facts of the Case
Rudy Duncan (Ben Affleck, Good Will Hunting) has been in prison for almost five years for Grand Theft Auto. He's been cellmates for the past couple years with Nick Cassidy (James Frain, Titus), who's been corresponding with a lovely pen pal, Ashley (Charlize Theron, Monster). When a prison riot leaves Nick dead, Rudy decides to take over his name and enjoy the charms of Ashley. All is going well until Ashley's brother Gabriel (Gary Sinise, Forrest Gump) shows up. Gabriel knows that Nick used to work in an Indian casino so he must have inside knowledge for knocking them over, and Gabriel is going to convince Nick (at gunpoint) to help with the robbery. Of course Nick isn't Nick anymore, and Rudy has no knowledge of the casinos, but he has to help or die.
I'll be the first to admit that Reindeer Games had potential. At bottom, it's a noirish little story about mistaken identity and forced violence, where Rudy is the "good criminal" (who only steals cars) and Gabriel is the "bad criminal" (because he's willing to kill). If this was a taut, 90-minute film that rocketed out of prison and into the casino heist, then maybe it would have been a classic of millennial action cinema. Otherwise, if it had gone the more contemplative route, it could have been a solid precursor to Affleck's later The Town.
Instead, we get a thriller that is too bloated to thrill, and a "drama" where nothing dramatic happens. This "director's cut" lasts for two solid hours, and it's a slow, slow churn to get to the finish line. If the film didn't open with a scene of a number of dead bodies dressed in Santa suits, the first 30 minutes could easily be mistaken for a wacky romantic comedy, where mistaken identity can't get in the way of true love. We spend an excruciating amount of time in the prison, like director John Frankenheimer has always regretted turning down The Shawshank Redemption or something. Even once we're out of the prison, it takes a while for things to heat up. That's all well and good, but once things start to get violent the movie takes a turn towards "plot twists." I put the term in quotation marks because they're often so ridiculous that it's hard to even consider them twists so much as "we made this up, deal with it" moments.
It all comes down to the script, which is a hopeless mess no matter how much footage Frankenheimer adds or subtracts for the three extant cuts of the film. I knew I was in for an awful ride when early on Ben Affleck's character Rudy actually looks into a mirror and says, "Don't do it, Rudy." It's such a transparently cheesy moment of bad writing that I was honestly shocked. From the micro level of the dialogue to the macro level of plot, there's no skeleton on which a decent (let alone good) movie can hang.
Worse movies, however, have been redeemed by decent Blu-ray releases. That's not the case here. The 2.35:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer looks like it got a working over with a digital hammer. The image lacks detail, artifacts (especially edge enhancement) abound, and black levels are inconsistent. Colors are okay, but otherwise this Blu-ray is exactly what the film deserves. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track is a little better, but it lacks the clarity and presence of contemporary hi-def audio tracks.
Extras start with a commentary by Frakenheimer, who spends much of his time extolling the virtues of the director's cut, though there are some interesting production stories interspersed throughout. We also get a 20-minute comparison of eight scenes from the theatrical cut alongside their more "polished" director's cut counterparts. These might be of interest to filmmakers, but since neither scene is particularly good, it's hard to appreciate the improvement. There's also a short (6 minute) behind-the-scenes featurette and the film's trailer.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Ben Affleck got a lot of guff for his role in this film, but while it's hardly his finest hour, it's really hard to fault his acting with a script this obviously weak. The rest of the cast (including award winners like Theron and Sinise) with lamentable dialogue and poor motivation. I'm almost tempted to recommend the film based solely on the fact that it features Isaac Hayes and Ron Jeremy in prison scenes, but won't go that far.
Reindeer Games is built on a decent idea, and when Hollywood exhausts its other options in twenty years, there will probably be a big-budget remake. That's what it would take to make this film effective, as no amount of re-editing can save the fact that this film is bloated and filled with poorly drawn characters. The fact that the technical aspects of this Blu-ray are so disappointing means that it's hard to recommend even a rental.
Not even Rudolph would want to play these Reindeer Games. Guilty.
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