Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: Reindeer Games: Director's Cut (2000)
Studio Line: Dimension Films - The Trap Is Set. The Game Is On.

Sizzling hot Ben Affleck (Pearl Harbor) and Charlize Theron (The Cider House Rules) team up with Gary Sinise (Mission To Mars) in this story of high-stakes crime and deception! Upon release from prison, Rudy (Affleck) poses as his old cell mate Nick in order to meet Nick's sexy pen pal, Ashley (Theron). But things heat up for Rudy when he's forced into an armed robbery plot being hatched by Ashley's evil brother (Sinise)! Also featuring Clarence Williams III (Life), Danny Trejo (Con Air) and Dennis Farina (Get Shorty) -- don't miss this nonstop thrill ride!

Director: John Frankenheimer
Cast: Ben Affleck, Charlize Theron, Gary Sinise, James Frain, Dennis Farina, Danny Trejo, Clarence Williams III
Box Office: Budget: $36 million. Opening Weekend: $8.128 million (2204 screens). Gross: $23.36 million.
DVD: Widescreen 2.35:1/16x9; audio English DD 5.1; subtitles none; closed-captioned; single sided - dual layered; 18 chapters; rated R; 124 min.; $29.99; street date 3/27/01.
Supplements: Sizzling Never-Before-Seen Footage Not Shown In The Original Theatrical, DVD Or Videocassette Releases!; Director's Commentary By Director John Frankenheimer; Original Theatrical Cut Scenes; Behind-The-Scenes Featurette; Trailer.
Purchase: DVD

Picture/Sound/Extras: B/B-/C+

Director John Frankenheimer seems to maintain a pretty solid reputation as a strong filmmaker, but one look over his résumé makes me wonder why this is. Sure, he made the 1962 classic The Manchurian Candidate and there are a few other good movies on his sheet, but over the last few decades, the clunkers have easily outweighed the hits. 1998’s Ronin appears to enjoy a decent reputation, but I thought it was only decent at best.

Otherwise, Frankenheimer’s put up a consistent string of duds. 1996’s The Island of Dr. Moreau tanked, and 1991’s Year of the Gun was also pretty weak. I was appalled to discover that Frankenheimer directed the atrocious 1979 monster movie called Prophecy. I thought that flick was laughable when I was 12, so I can’t imagine how silly it’d appear now.

Frankenheimer did nothing to enhance his reputation with Reindeer Games. Though it offered a moderately-amusing “high concept” premise - guys dressed as Santa rob a casino - and it featured a decent cast of actors that included younger stars like Ben Affleck and Charlize Theron plus the dependable Gary Sinise, the movie quickly flopped when it hit screens in February 2000. It took in an anemic $23 million and soon disappeared from the minds of most folks.

However, apparently Frankenheimer was forced to butcher his original vision of the film prior to its theatrical release. A new DVD let him put things right and restore the movie to be what he originally intended. As found on this disc, Reindeer Games runs an additional 19 minutes, and Frankenheimer seems to think that this extra footage makes the movie into a grittier and more complete piece.

That may be true. I never saw the original cut of RD, so I can’t compare the two. All I know is that if this is the superior version of the film, I can’t imagine how lame the theatrical cut must have been. While Reindeer Games wasn’t a terrible movie, it lacked much spark or excitement.

As the movie begins, we find car thief Rudy (Affleck) as he’s about to be released from prison. His cellmate Nick (James Frain) has maintained a long and hot penal relationship with sexy Ashley (Theron), and they’re about to finally meet since - coincidentally - Nick is scheduled to depart the prison walls at the same time as Rudy. Unfortunately, an angry lifer who thinks Rudy ratted on him comes after our star with a shiv. Nick heroically steps in the way and is killed in the melee.

When Rudy emerges from prison a few days later, he sees Ashley as she waits for Nick. With the possibility of some red-hot nookie on the horizon, Rudy pretends to be Nick and all’s well as the simmering passion ignites. Unfortunately, Ashley’s scummy brother Gabriel (Sinise) has other plans, and he wants to use Nick’s intimate knowledge of the Indian casino where he used to work to stage a robbery.

Unfortunately, Nick isn’t Nick - he’s Rudy, and Rudy knows squat about the casino. Nonetheless, Rudy tries to bluff his way through the experience, and the majority of the film follows his antics as he attempts to fool the thieves and keep himself alive.

All of that sounds pretty interesting, but as executed, it largely falls flat. Much of my problem with the movie revolved around its general stupidity. On a number of occasions, Rudy actually tells the crooks that he’s not Nick. However, they never seem to believe him, even when all of his “inside information” turns out to be bogus. They occasionally appear to sniff the truth, but their idiocy overwhelms them and they just feel that their man is holding out on them.

While I don’t doubt the stupidity of most criminals, the extent to which this film goes to keep the baddies in the dark about our hero’s real identity seems ludicrous. RD plods on for what feels like an eternity as the characters slowly head toward the casino, and when they get there, the ongoing ruse maintained by Rudy stretches the for an even longer interval. The framework simply isn’t strong enough to keep me interested, and the thinly-written characters didn’t help.

Reindeer Games wastes some good actors. Affleck isn’t a great performer, but he can be pretty solid at times. However, he seems especially dull here, and Rudy is an unengaging presence. Frankly, I didn’t really care what happened to him, for he wasn’t terrible interesting. Theron is better as Ashley, especially when some of her “true colors” start to emerge. She’s given a more provocative role, and Theron does nicely with it. Nonetheless, there’s only so much she can do, and to a large degree, Theron gets buried among the drabness of the film.

Sinise appears thick but menacing as Gabriel, but most of his cohorts are left with little to do. The excellent Clarence Williams III got saddled with a lot of stupid lines about “Santa’s dwarves”, and Dennis Farina appears like nothing more than a dense shill as the casino’s manager. Donal Logue and Danny Trejo are left with roles that amount to little more than cameos.

Ultimately, Reindeer Games wasn’t a terrible film, but I thought it was average at best, and it doesn’t match up with the reputation maintained by its director. It plodded through its muddled story and offered very few thrills along the way. I enjoy good action flicks, but most of Reindeer Games left me cold.

The DVD:

Reindeer Games appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Although not quite up to the standards I’d expect of such a recent film, RG nonetheless presented a generally solid picture.

Sharpness seemed good throughout the movie. At all times, the image looked crisp and well-defined, and I detected very few signs of softness. That said, RG paid a price for its sharpness, and that came through a much higher than normal degree of jagged edges and moiré effects. While I wouldn’t say that the movie was rife with these concerns, I definitely thought it appeared significantly edgier and showed more shimmering than usual. Some print flaws also cropped up via light grain and a few speckles, but these remained minor. However, I did notice quite a few “jumps” during the movie. These seemed to occur because of the re-integrated material, and it looked like a frame was missing from time to time, which caused the skips.

Colors looked acceptably bright and accurate, though they never seemed particularly special. Granted, RG didn’t feature a terribly vivid palette, and the hues probably worked about as well as they could. Black levels also seemed fairly solid, with some nicely deep tones, and shadow detail was appropriately heavy but not too thick. Ultimately, Reindeer Games presented a largely positive visual experience, albeit one with more flaws than normal for a film of this vintage.

Also good but unexceptional was the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of Reindeer Games. The soundfield maintained a very strong bias toward the front channels, where I heard fairly good atmosphere. Audio seemed generally well-placed within that environment, and for the most part, the sounds moved smoothly between speakers. At times I heard some moderately rough panning; for example, one scene shows an awkward transition when music from a jukebox jumped from one speaker to the next. However, most of the time I felt the soundfield kept things clean and realistic in the front.

As for the surrounds, they played a very small role during the film. Examples of rear usage seemed pretty few and far between, as the mix tended to stick with general ambience as a rule. This opened up the audio to a degree, but the lack of surround involvement seemed surprising for this kind of movie; I’d expect more activity from a loud action flick.

Audio quality appeared decent but terrific. Dialogue showed the most concerns, as speech could sound rather hard and unnatural at times. I always felt the lines seemed intelligible and clear, but they displayed a tinny edge that wasn’t very warm. Effects sounded accurate and crisp, and they offered good dynamics at times; many of the louder elements came across as quite bold and deep. Music also seemed clear and rich; both score and songs showed good range and fairly solid bass response. Ultimately, the soundtrack of Reindeer Games was a mixed bag, but it still seemed acceptable for the most part.

We also get a few extras on this DVD. First we find a running audio commentary from director John Frankenheimer. I thought this was a pretty good effort, as Frankenheimer mainly concentrated on the differences between this cut and the theatrical version. His disdain for the screening process through which films go becomes quite clear during this track, as he seems to feel that the test audiences helped ruin the theatrical edition of the movie. I can’t say that I agree with him since I didn’t like his director’s cut, but I enjoyed this discussion. In addition to topics related to the version of the movie on the DVD, he also gets into some general production concerns, and as a whole, Frankenheimer provided a compelling and enjoyable commentary.

The rest of the supplements are less scintillating. One area offers some scenes from the theatrical release of RD. There are eight in all, and each of them runs between 45 seconds and four minutes, 15 seconds; we get a total of 19 and a half minutes of clips. Although it would have been better to find integrated into the film via seamless branching, this was still a nice addition to the disc, as you can see the differences between the two versions.

In addition to the film’s theatrical trailer, a Behind the Scenes Featurette provides a brief look at the making of RD. While the program is too short to offer much depth, it’s actually pretty good for this kind of piece. It runs for six minutes and five seconds and gives us a few nice shots on the set, which are interspersed with interview snippets and movie clips. The featurette includes a mini look at the cameos by Isaac Hayes and football player Dana Stubblefield, and I enjoyed those parts of the show. Ultimately, I thought this was a superficial but watchable program.

Similar comments apply to Reindeer Games as a whole. While it was fairly watchable, it never exceeded that status, and much of the movie seemed dull and lifeless. It boasts a good cast and a famous director, but all of their efforts result in little excitement. The DVD provides decent but unexceptional picture and sound, and the extras are also a little thin, though director Frankenheimer adds a good audio commentary. I wanted to like Reindeer Games but it never engaged me, and I can find little reason to recommend this DVD.

Equipment: Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.

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