by Jason Morrison
Imagine you've spent the last five years in prison, doing hard time for grand theft auto. Now imagine that two days before you and your buddy are going to be released, he's killed by a knife meant for you, leaving his pen-pal girlfriend out in the cold. Now imagine that you pretend to be your buddy, sleep with his (really, really hot) pen-pal and then her brother surprises you with a gun. Now imagine that he wants you to help him rob the casino your buddy used to work at, because he thinks you're him, and when you say you're not him, imagine the brother wanting to kill you and then imagine pretending to be the buddy after all and imagine trying to escape ten times or so.
Oh, and it's Christmas Eve.
If the above story line doesn't exactly impress you, it's probably because it's not very good. Reindeer Games knows what the pitfalls of standard action movie plots are, but tries to overcome them by stuffing a whole bunch of them in at the same time.
First, there's the good old kidnap-the wife/girlfriend to get a good man to commit a crime. But then it's complicated by the old mistaken-identity twist. And I'm forgetting the whole convict-meets-beautiful-pen-pal bit. So instead of a run-of-the action movie, you have a kidnap-beautiful-convict's-pen-pal-to-force-wrong-guy-to-commit-crime movie. And that's not all-there are more than a few more very conventional twists and turns added on top, though spelling them out would take too much space and "ruin" the ending.
Ben Affleck plays Rudy, the convict mistaken for Nick (James Frain), and his face fills two-thirds of the screen for a good two-thirds of the movie. With so many close ups, it's hard not to notice that Affleck is having as hard a time figuring out how to play this script as the audience is to watch it. The script could have been played as a comedy, a la The Big Lebowski, without a single alteration, but it's not. It stays the course of the serious-business action movie so elements like robbing a casino in Santa costumes aren't funny, but it doesn't have any kind of thematic symbolism to give the costumes either. Affleck's character is pistol-whipped and then makes a wise crack-but the joke's not funny, the violence isn't used as a contrast, and at one point he even has to say "it was a joke."
All the characters ring hollow. The brother, the main bad guy, is named Gabriel (Gary Sinise), so you know there's going to be some kind of religious symbolism or motivation. But it's tacked on for no reason and frankly doesn't make any sense. Why would a gun runner out to rob a casino need God telling him he doesn't deserve to drive the "hard road?" Is it possible someone could rob a place to… get money?
Though the hot pen-pal, Ashley (Charlize Theron) goes through serious betrayal, threat of death, near-drowning, and turns out to be playing everyone for chumps, she never once makes any impression, other than how hot she it. You'd think someone whose life has just been saved by the man who lied to her to sleep with her would have some sort of reaction. Then again, she was playing him for a fool. But he did save her life, so maybe she would still have some sort of emotional conflict? Nope!
And I haven't even mentioned the really bad parts yet. Affleck's voice narrates the story several times for no reason, and we hear bits of dialogue as he remembers what would be key plot points if he bothered to pay attention to them. One of the goons tells Gabriel that half of all retail business is done right before Christmas, and Gabriel fires back with, "ever since you've been taking those night classes you've been giving me a headache." Isn't that ironic-a goon reading, how funny! And at one point, Rudy and a goon go for guns at the same time. Aha, the goon says, you mistakenly picked up the fake water gun. I'll just gloat and light up a cigarette. Aha, Rudy says, I filled the water gun with alcohol! Now you're on fire!
Not to mention a pointless and insulting diatribe by the casino owner about how he can't run a good casino where it snows, the script's inability to capitalize on Rudy's lame cover stories, and the film's end, which is absolutely ludicrous. The first thing I looked up after seeing the movie was the writer, Ehren Kruger. According to the Internet Movie Database this guy has a total of two real previous film credits, yet he has four movies coming out this year, including Scream 3. How did this happen? If this film is any indication, I don't have high hopes for Texas Rangers and Impostor.
Reindeer Games heaps cliché upon cliché in an effort to make the plot more interesting, but ends up with a garble of clichés. And really, who wants to see a Christmas-themed movie in February?
(Out of five)