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REINDEER GAMES: DIRECTOR'S CUT

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Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Ben Affleck, Gary Sinise, Charlize Theron, Dennis Farina, James Frain, Clarence Williams III
Director: John Frankenheimer
Audio: English Dolby Digital 5.1, French Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Widescreen 2.35:1 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio: Disney/Dimension Home Video
Features: See Review
Length: 104 Minutes
Release Date: March 27, 2001

Film ***1/2

John Frankenheimer’s Reindeer Games was a much critically panned action thriller. From my point of view, it is a very noteworthy, highly entertaining movie, filled with sharp, in-your-face twists that are sure to surprise you. It works very well, also because the movie’s director is a veteran of suspense movies filled with tension and surprises. Frankenheimer’s last movie, Ronin, was an expertly crafted action thriller which contained so many high-speed car chases, that you’d never believe that it was directed by a man in his seventies, which is how old Frankenheimer is. Reindeer Games doesn’t have as many chases, but the film creates tension with a keep-you-guessing kind of plot, helped by some fantastic performances from the cast.

The movie stars the always eager to charm Ben Affleck, of Mallrats and Phantoms fame, as Rudy Duncan. Rudy is currently serving time in prison for grand theft auto, and he is very much looking forward to his upcoming parole. His cellmate Nick (James Frain) also has parole ahead for him, and a beautiful woman waiting for him when he’s released. While in prison, Nick established a romantic connection with a woman named Ashley through letters, as part of a sort of convict-pen-pal program. All Rudy wants is to get home to spend Christmas with his family, enjoy a hot mug of hot chocolate, and a piece of pecan pie. Then two days before the convicts’ release, a riot breaks out in the cafeteria, and Nick is stabbed and killed by a fellow inmate, sacrificing himself for Rudy.

Come his day of release, Rudy does come across Ashley (Charlize Theron), who is eagerly waiting outside the prison gate. Rudy, who is struck by the woman’s beauty, assumes Nick’s identity; having already known much about Ashley through the letters Nick read to him. The two immediately hit it off, much to Rudy’s surprise, but it ends up going as far downhill as it can for Rudy. Ashley’s psychopathic brother Gabriel (Gary Sinise) crashes in on the two at their hotel room and insists on using the convict to help him and his team of thugs rob a local casino. The reason for this, the real Nick was previously employed at this particular casino before going in to the joint, and since Rudy is claiming himself to be Nick, Gabriel thinks he can use the ex-con as bait to take the place down. So in short, Rudy has some serious obstacles to overcome, such as the fact that Gabriel and his crew have never done a single robbery.

The screenplay is by Erhen Kruger, whose other writing credits include Scream 3 and Arlington Road. Krugher loads this story with sharpness and a razor sharp edge, and boasts an endless supply of plot twists. There are more surprises in the last half-hour of Reindeer Games than your average action-thriller. Some of them may not be totally believable, but this is strictly popcorn entertainment, so any twist will do for me. Also by that point of the movie, so much has happened, that I would accept just about any ironic twist, no matter how impossible it might seem. In its own strange way, Reindeer Games is a little daring in that using that strategy.

Of all that was panned of the movie, the most notable was that of Ben Affleck’s performance. Critics simply didn’t buy him as an action hero. I like Affleck in just about everything he does, and I found him to be very convincing in his role. I wouldn’t consider his character as a macho kind of guy, but he’s simply a guy caught in extraordinary circumstances, and does his best to get himself out of danger and win back his freedom, which he aimed for at the beginning of the movie. Gary Sinsie is an actor you can always rely on, especially when it comes to portraying villains. Although Gabriel is more of a clueless psycho, Sinise is able to maintain a vicious mannerism in Gabriel, which is believable throughout the movie.

Much credit, though, should go to John Frankenheimer. I don’t think there’s any other filmmaker older than him who can still make movies that are intense, pulse pounding, and viscerally exciting. That is exactly the kind of movie that Reindeer Games is.

Video ****

Re-issues of DVD’s, especially in a Director’s Cut format, are somewhat hard to predict in terms of how they compare to the original disc. In the case of Reindeer Games, this director’s cut release proves far better than it’s previous version, which is a very rare case. The fact that this edition includes simply the anamoprhic widescreen presentation, instead of cramming the standard version in addition as on the earlier version, is probably the reason why this disc is the one that soars. The picture quality is thoroughly clear and strikingly sharp, and the darkly lit scenes, which illumed with flaws in the previous edition, are in terrific form as well.

Audio ***1/2

As far as I can tell, the audio transfer isn’t that much different from the standard Reindeer Games disc. Still, it remains a terrific, bass-boosting audio track, put to Dolby Digital perfection. The suspenseful musical score by Alan Silvestri, and the various action scenes, such as the climatic gunfight in the casino, payoff enormously well.

Features ***

The fist issuing of Reindeer Games contained a moderate amount of extras, but the Director’s Cut adds a few more unique ingredients. In addition to the movie itself, which runs twenty minutes longer than the theatrical version, there’s an entirely new commentary track by John Frankenheimer, which was created for the sole purpose of explaining to the viewer why this version of the movie succeeds and the original one does not. Also included on the disc is a compilation of scenes from the theatrical version that were cut from or altered in the movie, as well as a featurette and a trailer for the movie.

Summary:

Reindeer Games definitely packs a punch in the thrill-a-minute genre. If you are fans of movies that keep you guessing till the end or if you like any of the lead actors, then you are likely to have an enjoyable blast.