Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Reindeer Games, My Holiday 2014 Review

You won't get my annual Year-End Round-up in time for New Year's Eve, but my holiday review is ready for you all. I hope you all have a fun and safe time tonight - unless you're a lousy person, in which case, please have less of those things than I will.

It was a good year for movies, but one of my relatives is dying and a close friend underwent so much emotional trauma as to have a nervous breakdown in my direction. My point: 2014, you were a good year for films, but horrible personally. F off and don't come back.

Reindeer Games is all sorts of insane. It's a John Frankenheimer action film from 2000 with Ben Affleck, Charlize Theron, Gary Senise, Clarence Williams III, Danny Trejo, James Frain, and Donal Logue AND Ashton Kutcher in a humiliating cameo that will surely warm all our hearts. The movie features violent Santas, gun play, torture with darts, hypothermia, immolation, brutal injuries, prison fights, lots of Charlize naked, implied incest, possible sexual assault, robbery, murder, and betrayal.

So you can see how this is a perfect candidate for my yearly holiday review. It fits right in with shark attacks in the Bahamas during Yuletide, the siege of Nakatomi Plaza, cruel Finnish elves, and a man who dies on his way home before coming back as a snow man who wants to teach his son the perfect slapshot. For now, let's ignore that DJ chose a classy film for his one holiday review.

Rudy (Affleck) and Nick (Frain) are cellmates with a nice rapport. Nick reads aloud the love letters from his pen pal while Rudy does pull ups and teases Nick about what will happen when the woman finally meets him. Over 10 minutes, we get a sense of the friendship between a repentant car thief (Rudy) and a righteous murderer (Nick). But then some guy just out of solitary tries to shank Rudy, and Nick steps in the way for his friend. The cellmates were due for release at the same time, but only Rudy walks out.

Chef takes his cafeteria fare very seriously.

So our protagonist finds himself on the prison bus, looking at the woman from Nick's letters as she paces outside. And, in a moment of human weakness, he exits the vehicle, introducing himself to Ashley (Theron) as Nick. The result is a bit of diner conversation, followed by tons of sweaty, naked sex.

And yet holiday joy isn't forthcoming for our ex-convict. No sooner does he return to his hotel room fresh from a shopping spree to see 5 angry men in his bedroom. This is where the story takes off, as Rudy learns that the leader, Gabriel aka "Monster," is (a) Ashley's brother and (b) dead-set on making the newly-released prisoner guide the men through a heist at the Indian casino that used to be Nick's workplace.

Now, our scammer has to try to stay out of trouble, keep himself and Ashley alive, and provide details for the robbery based on memories of his cellmate's old stories.

Reindeer Games got trashed in reviews at the time, and failed to earn its budget back. Ms. Theron has called it the worst movie she's ever made. And the first time I saw it, with a close friend, we found the first half to be completely boring.

But none of that paints a true picture of this Anti-Christmas film. For one thing, the semi-dull first half is balanced by a second half that goes apes--t on the viewer. Ms. Theron is somehow even more naked than she was at the beginning. The jokes arrive more frequently than before.

And the physical aspect... when the action comes, it comes hard - it's impossible to remain unfazed by the brutal violence that occurs amid an incongruous, season-appropriate backdrop. Hell, this is a movie set in the holidays wherein a guy named "Nick" is stabbed to death at the start!

And for another thing, it's the second half where the tone really changes. Clarence Williams III develops a creepy, sadistic fixation for our lead (and is foolishly amazed by Rudy's and Ashley's love of cookies). The sexuality has a sleezier, more lurid vibe to it. Ashley gets up to some sketchy business with Gabriel.

Basically, the violence ramps up smoothly throughout this entire period, as the character dynamics get more suspenseful and more complicated. All of this leads to two scenes that are so busy and tense that it threatens to blow the roof of the proceedings.

The biggest failing of RG is that it wastes too much of the cast. Williams III doesn't have much dialogue, but manages to inject a lot into his role. As the most experienced actor on the set, he can do that. But Logue is wasted, and barely has any lines. Ditto for Trejo. Even Senise, as the main antagonist, only gets two or three monologues delivered to Ben's face, and one scene with Theron that's a showcase for her character.

The only person used completely properly is Ashton Kutcher in his brief cameo:

You can't make a good result from a movie where almost every role is undercooked, and the two leads (Affleck and Theron) end up getting all the attention... The latter doesn't work all that well, because her role is being used in a way that defeats lots of character development. She's both the temptress and the damsel in distress, and possibly a manipulator, so we don't really get to know her, save for once - for, like, 5 seconds.

And the former doesn't work all that well either - because Affleck plays a newly-freed con who tricks a girl into having sex with him. Also Rudy often displays a snarky attitude that leaves you unsure whether he's a bitter jerk or he's just being cynical and funny. I also wish his voice didn't sound kind of stoned at times...

But no matter what, all I can claim is that RG is more entertaining than you would think. The fact that it goes gleefully off the rails helps. Yet I can't call it good. Something here ultimately fails to make it a genuinely good action/suspense film.

For one thing, the overall story of the movie is like an inverted Die Hard. Rudy stumbles into being pulled into a crime. By a bunch of incompetent, violent, ill-prepared first-time robbers. This lends the film a certain familiarity, but also an unfortunate parallel to one of the best action pix ever. But we also see Rudy escape/nearly-escape repeatedly, and it starts to get close to feeling boring.

And the contrast between the adventures of Jon McClain and Rudy Whatshisface isn't nearly interesting enough or cool enough or edifying enough to make this heist/mistaken identity venture worthwhile.

A second factor: this movie came at a time when Affleck still looked pretty young. I'm not saying that 2000-era Ben couldn't credibly play an imprisoned Michigander car thief - but Frankenheimer's movie makes him more hardboiled than the actor can realistically pull off at this point. He cracks wise like Bruce Willis might, but he's not dirty or rugged or experienced-looking to the point where he can sell it in a way viewers will adore. Hell, maybe the script isn't really doing him any favors, either.

Also, it's worth repeating: our hero had sex under false pretenses, so he's kind of committing sexual assault. Afterwards, he gets beaten up enough that you can tell the movie isn't condoning his actions, but still. It creates a biiiiig likability gap for the audience.

At least it tries to end on a Christmas-appropriate note... Ultimately, though, Rudy's not trying to save his family, the world or hostages. He's a released convict who got in trouble again, then scrambles to save his ass. Instead of fighting for something, he's paying for his new mistake, and surviving.

Inside, all he wants to do is go home and rest. None of this is inspirational, nor does it ingratiate him to the audience. And they still should've ditched the voiceovers - Miramax works use those too often...

In any case, that's the last entry for this year! Thanks for coming here and reading. Have a great 2015 and enjoy some moderately-priced champagne!

-Half a Film Student

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