Thursday, October 2, 2008


Anybody that enjoyed "Reservoir Dogs" (1992) Quentin Tarantino's bloody, bullet-riddled heist caper, should have no qualms about watching veteran director John Frankenheimer's hard-boiled crime thriller "Reindeer Games" (**** out of ****) with Ben Affleck, Charlize Theron, and Gary Sinise.

This outlandish but entertaining Tarantinoesque slay ride about mistaken identities, double-crosses galore, machine-gun toting Santa Clauses, and a botched casino robbery at Christmas flaunts a quality cast, an audacious script, and some riveting, white-knuckled suspense scenes.

Affleck makes a strong, charismatic hero in his first tough guy actioneer as he matches wits, fists, and guns with sinister Gary Sinise. While heavily-armed, trash-talking, macho males dominate this testosterone-soaked saga, Charlize Theron takes top acting honors as a manipulative, man-eating temptress.

Scenarist Ehren Kruger, who penned "Arlington Road" and "Scream 3," has written a lively but literate, tongue-in-check melodrama with about as many endings as the 1998 Denise Richards romp "Wild Things" with Matt Dillon.

Auto thief Rudy Duncan (Ben Affleck of "Chasing Amy") and his cellmate, Nick (James Frain), have 48-hours left to serve in Michigan's austere Iron Mountain Prison. Rudy has grown weary of listening to Nick read him letters from a woman who has become his pen pal. No matter how often Rudy warns him about strange women, Nick plans to hook up with this dame after he gets out.

Everything is going swell for them when a riot erupts in the prison cafeteria over a roach-infested gelatin dessert. A vengeful inmate, just out-of-solitary packing a grudge and a shiv for Rudy, tries to carve up our protagonist during the chaos, but Nick takes the knife for his friend and appears to die in his arms.

As Rudy leave prison, he spots Ashley Mercer (sexy Charlize Theron of "Monster"), the girl Nick had worshipped in his letters, and decides to take advantage of her ignorance. Nick never sent her his photo, so Ashley believes Rudy when he takes over Nick's identity. Rudy enjoys a bang-up, one-night orgy until Ashley's low-life brother, Gabriel (Gary Sinise of "Mission to Mars"), a violent, unhinged, trucker who sells contraband guns, spoils their fun.

No matter how much he protests that he isn't Nick, Rudy cannot convince Gabriel and his trigger-happy thugs that they have made a mistake. Ashley warns Rudy that her brother won't hesitate to kill him if he suspects treachery.

Reluctantly, Rudy assures Gabriel that he is really Nick, only to learn that Gabriel wants to knock over the casino where Nick worked before he went up to serve time. Meanwhile, former Las Vegas casino operator Jack Bangs (Dennis Farina of "Manhunter") is having trouble attracting gamblers to the Tomahawk, a casino owned by an Indian tribe. Gabriel plans the robbery for Christmas day, with Rudy providing crucial details about the guards, alarms, and security precautions.

Legendary director John Frankenheimer, who helmed "Ronin," "Seconds," and "The Manchurian Candidate," never lets the action bog down in this nimble-minded thriller. Great action movies paint their heroes into a corner and try to bring the house down on them. "Reindeer Games," a first-rate, four-star action opus, piles on the pressure and never gives its wily protagonist a break until fade-out. Outside of his work with Kevin Smith, this ranks as Ben Affleck's best work.

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