A dime-a-dozen, action-suspense thriller hybrid that unravels as it reveals, "Reindeer Games" is more than just a bad title. It's a sorry string of surprises that don't surprise and a disappointing follow-up for director John Frankenheimer, who two years ago hit a genre high mark with the espionage-and-adrenaline knock-out, "Ronin."
Frankenheimer must have shot his load on that picture, because this one -- about a petty con (Ben Affleck) fresh out of pokey, whose girlfriend gets him mixed up in a doomed casino robbery -- is lacking even a hint of the savvy director's fingerprints on the finished product. Given the same script, any bozo with a couple music videos under his belt would have turned out the exact same movie.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Here's the plot: Two days before Rudy Duncan (Affleck) is to end a five-year stretch for grand theft auto, his cell mate Nick (James Frain, "Titus") -- also due for parole -- dies in a prison knife fight. Nick had been pen pals with Ashley (Charlize Theron), a beautiful Miss Lonely Hearts on the outside, and upon release Rudy -- the skunk that he is -- assumes the dead man's identity and quickly becomes attached to the girl.
Enter greasy killer Gabriel (Gary Sinise), Ashley's ruthless criminal brother who has a grandiose get-rich plan that involves forcing Nick to aid and abet a big-score robbery at the snow-bound Indian casino where he used to be a security guard.
Since he's posing as Nick, it's now Rudy who is forced to help -- and without the insider knowledge Gabriel and his low-life cronies think he possesses.
Despite the big question mark of why on Earth a girl like Theron ("Cider House Rules," "Mighty Joe Young") would be reduced to meeting men in prison, "Reindeer Games" begins well enough, as the gears in Affleck's head visibly grind at high RPMs just trying to stay alive in this den of wolves, where before long he discovers he's not the only one who isn't what he seems.
Rudy has to think fast as he gets pistol-whipped, test marketing the truth against what these criminals want to hear and decides he's better play along as Nick for a while. He tries to put Gabriel's plan off-course. He tries to escape so many times it becomes tiresome. He has sex with the girl a couple times, as she seems to be an innocent in these proceedings.
But as the movie wears on, it makes less and less sense and becomes more and more an low-I.Q. action movie full of high-caliber gunfire, exploding cars flying off cliffs and cutesy, Christmas-themed quips.
When the casino heist goes down, Affleck and his criminal captors even invade the joint in Santa suits, and it goes wrong in a hurry.
I'm being deliberately vague here because (at the studio's supplication) I don't want to ruin the surprises for anyone too thick to figure them all out in the first 15 minutes.
But once all is revealed, it becomes abundantly clear that the plot twists are unnecessarily convoluted and -- in retrospect -- absurd and self-defeating. Not a one of them fits logically into the plans of these half-wit criminal masterminds and any fool can see that without them the Casino job -- which we know from the beginning ends in carnage -- would have gone a lot more smoothly. These twists exists for the soul purpose of throwing the audience off the scent.
Many of the performances are merely a means to the same end, and as such are vague and underplayed. At first Theron portrays Ashley with a hint of damaged-good emotional insecurity, but she never gives us enough of it to believe she might actually consider a parolee as a great catch.
Affleck provides momentary glimpses of thinking-on-his-feet intelligence early on, but they give way to pure, pretty-boy, action grunt affectations by the time the movie reaches the half-way mark.
Sinise chews scenery like a doberman coming off a diet, and poor Clarence Williams III ("Life," "The General's Daughter") looks positively embarrassed (not to mention stoned) as the leader of Gabriel's lackeys.
"Reindeer Games" is rotten at the script level (written by Ehren Kruger, who managed his twists much better in "Arlington Road" but bungled them almost as badly in "Scream 3"), so why Frankenheimer signed on is a mystery. But even with his hand holding the camera, this movie is just a casting call away from being a sad Saturday Nitro premiere on TNT.