Santa Claus lies dead in Michigan, oozing blood in the snow. It's the grabber first image in a movie that unravels in flashback. Reindeer Games is a pungently nasty thriller that arrives two months late for Christmas but just in time to remind audiences of the resuscitating wonders that director John Frankenheimer, 70, can perform on a tired genre.
Ben Affleck plays Rudy - as in Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer, in case you were wondering about the title. But Rudy has no time for games; he's doing jail time for car theft. His cellmate distracts him with photos of Ashley (Charlize Theron), a knockout who writes long letters and promises hot sex as soon as Rudy's pal gets out.
Suspicious? You bet. But these guys are either desperately horny or just willing to go along with recycled movie plots. Anyway, it's Rudy who gets out - his buddy is stabbled in a prison fight. And it's Rudy who impersonates Ashley's pen pal. Why? To get in her pants, stupid. Wrong move. The sex is great, but Rudy didn't count on Ashley's brother, Gabriel (Gary Sinise in full psycho mode), a sadist who forces Rudy to suit up as Santa and help him rob a casino on an Indian reservation where the stabbed cellmate once worked. Rudy, of course, knows nothing. You shouldn't, either; Dimension Films has urged critics not to spoil the film's surprises.
My guess is you'll be ahead of the twists in the script, by Ehren Kruger (Stream 3). The fun comes in watching Affleck and a game cast, including Clarence Williams III, Dennis Farina and Donal Logue, play thoroughly despicable characters. Reindeer Games lacks the emotional resonance of Frankenheimer's classic films (The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May) or his recent work on TV (George Wallace) and film (Ronin). But it bristles with the brute force he brought to 1986's underrated 52 Pick-Up. Frankenheimer is the siege engine that keeps the Reindeer action flying on all cylinders.