I’m a sucker for any film that starts by showing us a bunch of dead Santas. It means the comedy’s gonna be black, and that nothing is sacred.
Alas, John Frankenheimer’s “Reindeer Games” doesn’t quite live up to that marker, but it does hit several high points as it spins a fun story in which no one is what they appear to be, and everyone wants someone else dead.
Rudy (Ben Affleck) has just been released from prison, at Christmastime, after doing five years for auto theft. Seeking something to live for, he takes up with Ashley (Charlize Theron), the pen-pal of his former cell-mate Nick, who was killed during a prison food fight just days earlier. Ashley thinks Rudy is Nick, and Rudy perpetuates that myth, especially as it gets him in the sack with her back at the hotel.
The real Nick, however, had worked at an obscure Michigan casino and therefore has inside knowledge as to how best rob the place — information that Ashley’s brother Gabriel (Gary Sinise) now wants so he and his band of goons can pull off the heist. Rudy can’t come clean and admit he’s not Nick, because he’ll lose Ashley (who has professed love for him), so he goes on impersonating Nick, faking his way as much as he can.
Things go horribly awry, of course, and the film winds up highly reminiscent of “Reservoir Dogs,” at least in terms of body count, and definitely in the “robberies-gone-bad” genre of films.
Theron is passable as the femme fatale; Affleck is better-than-average as Rudy. His natural niceness works for him here, as Rudy is not meant to be a hardened criminal; he’s just a guy who wants to spend the holidays with his family for the first time in five years.
When “Reindeer Games” stays darkly funny, it works well, lifting it above your ordinary “caper” film, which is all it is otherwise. One of Gabriel’s lowlife friends reads Business Weekly and questions the wisdom of having a majority of the year’s retail sales crammed into one holiday period. Sinise has a number of fine moments as the quirky Gabriel, particularly one in which he uses Rudy as a dartboard. And then there’s that finale with all the Santas.
Plot-wise, you have to believe it’s possible for the entire world and all the Fates to be conspiring against one man. But get past that, and you’ve got a highly entertaining, if not entirely successful, dark comedy.
B (; )