Director John Frankenheimer has been putting bad guys on the street since Luca Brazzi slept with a teddy bear, and he shows no sign of letting up at age 70. In Reindeer Games, a relentless (and relentlessly witty) crime thriller set in the frozen wastes of northern Michigan, a sleazy gunrunner bent on robbing an Indian casino kidnaps the hero, a reformed car thief named Rudy Duncan, who has just gotten out of the penitentiary. The gunrunner and his crew promptly beat the hero senseless, point seven or eight automatic weapons at his head and explain how he's going to help them pull off the caper. They know, after all, that before Duncan did his time, he was a security guard at the casino, so he understands the ins and outs of the place.
By the way, it's almost Christmas, so jaunty little holiday ditties keep popping up on the soundtrack, to good comic effect. The robbers plan to wear Santa Claus suits on the job. There is also (as there must be) a woman of mystery: in this case, the exceptionally sleek sister of the gunrunner. She exchanged overheated letters with the hero, sight unseen, while he was in the joint. Naturally it's snowing. And, as we've come to expect in Frankenheimer country, nobody is quite what they seem, and nothing is exactly on the square. From The Manchurian Candidate (1962) to the unsung 52 Pick Up (1986) to Ronin (1998), Frankenheimer has been profiling vivid lowlifes and yanking our chains in the double- and triple-cross department, and the great action stylist does it here with renewed energy and what appears to be redoubled glee. Think of it: Four decades in the movie business, and the guy's still in a position to make trouble, his own brand of trouble. We should all be so lucky.
Frankenheimer's lean, muscular style of moviemaking has influenced every tough-guy director from Michael Mann to Quentin Tarantino, and so has his uncanny way with actors. In French Connection II, he elicited what may be an even more striking Popeye Doyle from Gene Hackman than the one that earned him an Oscar for part one, and Burt Lancaster gave credit where it was due for the power of his performance in Birdman of Alcatraz. And in Reindeer Games, Frankenheimer shares the wealth with a new generation of actors, and they come across for him. Ben Affleck, for one, seems to be extraordinarily focused as Rudy Duncan, the ex-con who now desires nothing more than to have Christmas dinner at home, sleep in his old bed and watch ball games on the tube with Dad. Rudy is, of course, just the latest in a long line of movie crooks who want to go straight and can't, but Affleck brings the right contemporary edge to the part. As for Charlize Theron, late of The Cider House Rules, Frankenheimer gives the beauty with the bee-stung lips every chance to sizzle, despite frigid landscapes straight out of Fargo. As Ashley, the pen pal who thinks she has found love in the state pen via U.S. Mail, Theron strikes just the right balance between little-girl neediness and grown-up lust.
Colorful bad guys? As always, Frankenheimer stocks up. Gary Sinise leads the way here as Ashley's vicious redneck brother, Gabriel, who means to take down the casino as just reward for the five million grueling miles he has logged as a truck driver. His hair hangs in nasty strings, his brain's set on perma-scam, and he's the kind of guy who will throw bar darts at a captive's head. Gabriel's henchmen may not be quite as magnetic as the lowlifes in 52 Pick Up, but they'll have to do until, say, the Coen brothers return to rural Minnesota. We've got Clarence Williams III's Merlin, the glowering muscle of Gabriel's crew; Donal Logue as Pug, whose IQ is about room temp; and Danny Trejo as Jumpy, whose nickname says it all. Issue these guys heavy artillery, put them in Santa suits, and you know things are bound to go wrong. But first, Frankenheimer and screenwriter Ehren Kruger (Arlington Road, Scream 3) give us a nice comic jolt in the form of the deluded casino manager, Jack Bangs (Dennis Farina), a Vegas exile who can't believe he's now in this neck of the woods.
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Gabriel and company do mean to rob the place, and that opens a Pandora's box of deceptions. It also gives a veteran filmmaker the chance to strut his stuff in high style. How about a little ice fishing -- not for pike, but for a pair of humans? How about Charlize and Ben practically setting the sheets on fire in a $20 motel room? How about a 9 mm that turns out to be a squirt gun -- but still figures as a deadly weapon? In this beautifully devious, exceptionally well made entertainment, John Frankenheimer does it all, and more, with the confidence of an old master.