Director John Frankenheimer proves his comeback in 1998's great action flick Ronin was no fluke with Reindeer Games, a smart, violent and twist-filled heist movie set in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
Red hot Ben Affleck, (who, with The Boiler Room, now has his second good movie opening in as many weeks) plays Rudy Duncan, a car thief whose stay at Iron Mountain Prison will end a few days before Christmas. Rudy has vowed to go straight, and wants nothing more than to be home for Christmas with his parents.
Rudy's cell mate, Nick, (James Frain) who is being released at the same time, is corresponding with a gorgeous woman named Ashley (Charlize Theron) who has never seen him. Nick's plan to build a new life with Ashley is interrupted when he gets in the way of a shiv in the gut meant for Rudy.
But on release day, Rudy, seeing Ashley waiting at the prison gate, can't bring himself to tell her Nick is dead. After hearing Nick read Ashley's letters aloud, Rudy realizes he also has a major crush on her, and takes Nick's place as sort of a sleazy Cyrano.
But Rudy pays for his moral lapse in spades, when a gang of gun-running truckers, who fancy themselves ready to graduate to armed robbery, interrupt Nick and Ashley's illegitimate honeymoon. Led by Gabriel (Gary Sinise), who introduces himself as Ashley's brother, the plan is to have "Nick," who once worked security in an Indian casino, help them rob the joint one foggy Christmas Eve.
Rudy vainly tries to convince Gabriel of the truth, but quickly realizes that will not set him free. As Rudy, he is no use to them, but as Nick, he might stay alive long enough to outsmart and foil this motley crew.
So begins a suspenseful and violent game of cat and mouse, of near escapes, and betrayal. If Ronin was a throwback to 70s Cold War spy thrillers, Reindeer Games is reminiscent of gritty 50s crime flicks in which a loner with a shady past has to grapple with vicious crooks. If it weren't for the R-rated doses of sex and language, one could easily imagine Robert Mitchum, Lana Turner, Barbara Stanwyk, Richard Widmark or Victor Mature in various roles.
Affleck plays a role that could use a little more Mitchum attitude, however. He's a little too affable a personality to play a tough ex-con. Anyone who thought that George Clooney's edges weren't rough enough in Out of Sight may have an even bigger problem here.
But as Ashley, Charlize Theron has a ball as a trailer trash version of Lana Turner; and Gary Sinise is both menacing and wickedly funny as Gabriel, the criminal mastermind who is only about half as smart as he thinks he is.
Also making strong impressions in the cast are Clarence Williams III (TV's Mod Squad) in yet another laconic strong arm role, and quintessential baddun, Danny Trejo, who plays a Money Magazine-reading Indian hood, who's constantly floating marketing ideas. Dennis Farina has a small, but effective bit as a mobbed up, snow-hating, Las Vegas expatriate casino consultant brought in by the tribe to boost profits.
With its blue collar Michigan setting, (British Columbia does a decent stand in for the U.P.) and tough, witty dialogue, Reindeer Games seems much more like an Elmore Leonard story than Frankenheimer's heavy handed, grotesque version of 52 Pickup did.
Screenwriter Ehren Kruger, whose Arlington Road plot required bad guys who were darn near omniscient, once again has a somewhat too complicated plot with several huge twists. Here, however, one is far more willing to suspend disbelief, since the plot actually gets more logical as it goes along (a rare thing these days) and is helped immensely by a wry sense of humor.
Besides, where else are you going get to see five Santas storm a bargain basement casino with guns a' blazin'?