My countdown to Christmas continues with another less-than-traditional festive tale. If you ever wanted to see Danny Trejo pretend to be a department store Santa, then this is the flick for you…
Stay on the bus Rudy.
Rudy is a car thief. For months his cellmate Nick has been writing to a girl named Ashley and the two are now in love. Nick and Rudy are both due for parole in a few days, and Ashley will be there to meet Nick for the first time. Unfortunately Nick catches a shiv and dies, so Rudy does the honourable thing: he meets Ashley and pretends to be Nick. It just so happens that Ashley’s brother is also in town and is determined to use Nick and his knowledge of a casino he used to work in to rob the place on Christmas Eve. Good plan, Rudy. Hijinks (and Santa suits) ensue.
Making a noir caper movie is a real balancing act. The story has to keep you guessing, but even one twist too many and you just get annoyed. So it goes with Reindeer Games. Ehren Kruger’s script toys with you like a cat with a ball of twine. Just when you think you’ve got it worked out, it just yanks away and unravels a bit more. With a lesser director this could have been unwatchable, but John Frankenheimer (making his final theatrical release before his death at age 72) manages to give the whole thing a sheen of style that borders on self-parody at times, using lots of tight close-ups and Dutch angles.
Watching Reindeer Games—or Deception, as it’s sometimes known*—it’s clear that some of the cast were less than enthused about the project. Charlize Theron is on record as saying that this is the worst of all the films she has been in. She is really not done any favours with the character of Ashley, a woman who gives duplicitous a whole new meaning. After her first couple of scenes with Rudy she spends the entire rest of the flick switching between hysterical and calculating depending on who else is in the room. The problem is that she only has the two extremes; there’s no sublety to Ashley, no shading. Ben Affleck fares a little better as Rudy, the resourceful booster who ends up way over his head. His character is a bit like Cary Grant’s Roger Thornhill from North by Northwest (I bet you didn’t see that comparison coming), doing what he can to stay alive long enough to figure a way out.
Gary Sinise plays Gabriel, Ashley’s brother, as pretty much a stock psycho, all sneer and crazy eyes. His gang is made up of some decent character actors (Donal Logue, Clarence Williams III and the incomparable Danny Trejo) but they are all stuck in parts so thin as to be almost see-through. I wasn’t even sure of their names until I was on the IMDb page.
This flick has received one hell of a bad rap over the years. In my opinion that’s not entirely deserved. It’s not very good, but I wouldn’t say it’s quite as bad as has been made out. It has some decent moments and a few good lines, and Frankenheimer—though well past his Manchurian Candidate glory days—could still point a camera. It just has that one twist too many. I could buy into most of what happens without too much effort, but the movie wants to have that one last laugh. And when that laugh is at your expense, it kind of ruins things.
*Which is a really shitty title, by the way.