Monday, December 27, 2010
That Gift Was Granted
So anyway, Christmas. Not much to say. My annual viewing of ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE. TRUE GRIT twice at the Vista. Seeing BLACK SWAN for a second time. Becoming one of the mere handful of people on the planet who absolutely loves SOMEWHERE. Revisiting a few titles like IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE and GREMLINS along with popping various other Christmas movies into the DVD player at random. Started to watch LOVE ACTUALLY, then realized that I couldn’t deal with all that incessant romantic holiday cheeriness at this point it time—it’s just too damn depressing. Somehow I never got around to watching DIE HARD again this year, but since I’ve seen it about ten million times already that’s all right, there were a few others to make up for it. Not exactly one of the better Christmas movies of all time on either an ironic or non-ironic level, John Frankenheimer’s REINDEER GAMES followed up his late career triumph of 1998’s RONIN and turned out to be his final theatrical release. But not the final film he directed--the excellent PATH TO WAR, an HBO biopic on LBJ, followed premiering shortly before his death in 2002 and I suppose for such a legendary career it’s a somewhat more esteemed note to go out on. But just having REINDEER GAMES tossed in there, essentially a down and dirty genre piece of the sort that he had done a number of times before, indicates the wide, sometimes bizarre range that his long career spanned from when it began way back in the days of live TV. Pushed from a Christmas ‘99 release, which would have made sense, back to February 2000 seeing it at the time was a pretty big disappointment after RONIN and revisiting it now reminds me just how many Ben Affleck movies released by Miramax/Dimension we had to see back in those days. And when this film’s plot begins in prison the sight of the clean-cut Affleck serves as a reminder that we’re a long way from Burt Lancaster doing time in the director’s BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ. It’s still not great—hell, it was probably never going to be great and I kind of wonder if this was the best script he got offered after RONIN or just the best deal—but maybe I’m feeling easy these days amidst the misery of the holidays that I can’t bring myself to mind it all that much. At the very least it has momentum, some decent action and to some extent tries to be a no-nonsense crime thriller without, for the most part, dealing in any postmodern tropes that were becoming all the more common around this time.
Imprisoned car thief Rudy Duncan (Ben Affleck) is just a few days away from the end of his five year stint and looking forward to getting home just in time for Christmas. His friend and cellmate Nick Cassidy (James Frain) is getting out at the same time too and he’s excited to finally meet the girl who he’s been corresponding with for the past few months. But when a prison riot results in Nick getting stabbed and killed, it only takes one look at Ashley Mercer (Charlize Theron) as she waits at the prison gates for Rudy to make the impulsive decision to claim to be Nick. In spite of his charade, the two of them hit it off immediately but things soon take a turn for the worse when Ashley’s brother Gabriel (Gary Sinise) turns up with his gang of toughs intent on using what they believe to be “Nick’s” expertise of a casino security job he once worked to knock off that very casino on Christmas Eve, when they know business will be slow and the place won’t be fully staffed with security. Since nothing Rudy says will convince them that he isn’t really Nick, ultimately he has no choice but to go along with them since it might be the only way he can stay alive.
Actually, writing out that synopsis was harder than I expected and as anyone who’s seen this film knows there are any number of plot revelations I left out. There are the issues of learning who certain people actually are along with just what is really going on in this plot, twists upon twists which become so outlandish that when the final surprises come to light near the end (I guess I’ll avoid spoilers) it’s hard not to ponder just how many things needed to fall into place to make things work as they were supposed to. Frankly, it seems like the most unnecessarily complicated plan in the entire history of heist movies. REINDEER GAMES was written by Ehren Kruger who in the past decade has become one of the most successful screenwriters in the business with his hand in several big franchises and, naturally, he’s become a pretty big whipping boy on the net for a few of these—check out his imdb page to get a look at the hatred. To keep things fair I’ll just say that I’ve liked some of his films, I haven’t liked others and if he’s become a success for whatever reason then good for him (his involvement with writing a remake of VIDEODROME, on the other hand, is pretty indefensible on every possible level so I guess my kindness only goes so far). REINDEER GAMES is so packed with the most wacko plot twists imaginable that if it began life as a spec script by Kruger I could see how it would have read well as a gimmicky attempt to get a reader’s attention, as patently ridiculous as it is with very little happening that ever feels credible on any basic human level. And maybe, since it would be near impossible to make any of this plausible, it’s a spec script that should have stayed a spec script no matter how much skill somebody like Frankenheimer brings to the material.
Compared with the gritty, serious kick-ass action of RONIN this film feels a little more immature, a blatant stab at a movie-movie kind of plot that might not have been worthy of the guy who made THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE. It contains his patented forceful style but the whole thing is so goofy that the various elements never really go together. Combine that with the basic believability issues with begin cropping up about five minutes in and it just becomes this oddball thing, a fake movie designed to play late nights on cable from now until the ends of time. Wasn’t there ever a reading of the script with the actors that ended with somebody sitting at the table going, really? Is anybody actually going to buy any of this? Maybe they just liked that they were getting to make an action movie with John Frankenheimer and kept quiet. I’m not sure I would blame them. The Maltin book points out that the actors “all seem to be playing ‘grown-up’ parts from an old movie script” in its one-and-a-half star review, a criticism that isn’t all that unwarranted and also brings to mind that it’s fairly easy to imagine this basic setup serving as part of some fatalistic noir made in the late 40s/early 50s (actually, the more I think about it this non-existent movie it sounds pretty great) with a cast who might have seemed a little more grounded and believable, something most of these actors never fully become. That version probably would have pulled off its story in about eighty minutes as well and maybe wouldn’t have ended in so happy-go-lucky a fashion, just one extra element among many that feels placed in there to make the movie something that it shouldn’t be. After all, who goes to see a hard-boiled John Frankenheimer film hoping that it’ll end with a lead character smiling amidst the warmth of family?
Since the disappointment felt when I saw it on opening weekend isn’t a factor anymore, I won’t exactly say that I’ve grown to like REINDEER GAMES but revisiting it now I found myself getting some enjoyment out of its dopey, over-complicated plot. At least the thing moves, with action that is always well-staged, along with a directing style that continually presents giant close-ups of its tough guys snarling at each other, sometimes with a second tough guy framed behind them snarling as well (Frankenheimer always seemed to love lining up shots like this through the decades), ready to pound the hell out of somebody at a moment’s notice. Even being a little more charitable to it now it’s still awfully long, particularly in the 124 minute director’s cut that can be found on DVD (the theatrical cut is out there too but I watched this one because it’s what he seems to have preferred. It’s also what I happened to have around) and on occasion becomes just a little too unpleasant with its lunkhead bad guys who are more thugs than anything, as if Frankenheimer was ok with making a popcorn movie but wasn’t going to scrimp on how truly viscerally nasty he could make things if at all possible. Considering how freezing it always looks this probably wasn’t the most enjoyable shoot ever (filmed in Vancouver to represent Michigan) and not many movies set in snow have as dirty a feel to them as this one does, with the bitter cold it’s all set in coming off as so palpable that just watching it makes me want to put on a coat. It’s definitely a weird combination of tones and since I’m a dumb guy who never realized until now that this Christmas movie features major characters named Rudy, Nick and Gabriel I suddenly wonder if Frankenheimer, a brilliant filmmaker but never one of the most humorous, ever realized the joke himself (there’s also a Santa’s dwarves/elves runner in the dialogue that never gets its payoff as if he just didn’t didn’t care about that sort of one-liner). I could believe that the script was intended to be a little more arch and fun but he goes for the furious intense action, as pummeling as he can make it. Even if it’s not quite right, it’s still at times an impressive display of craft for the director who turned 70 just before the film was released.
Considering how many double crosses there are, both Frankenheimer and Kruger deserve some credit for it all coming together in more or less a way that can be followed (the whole thing with the Pow Wow safe never seems clarified, however), as blatantly absurd as it all is. Some of the little details manage to have a fair amount of cleverness, like when one of the dumb crooks uses some logical reasoning if a way that feels kind of refreshing and even when it feels a little overstuffed (Dennis Farina’s casino manager seems like a rich characterization who Kruger should have saved for a script where he could have been fully utilized) at least it’s trying to never be dull. So help me, by the time we hit the big heist in the casino with multiple Santas, I’m pretty much with it. And except for one or two unnecessary points, like Danny Trejo discussing an article he’s reading on how Christmas aids the retail economy, not much in the way of Tarantino-era jokiness either. Really, the film isn’t badly done at all--it’s just never believable for a second and the way Frankenheimer directs it he seems to believe that it is. That, combined with how it’s never as much fun as it probably should have been makes me think that maybe it just wasn’t his kind of material. Still, it makes it kind of interesting to pick it apart. REINDEER GAMES isn’t a good movie but it has such a force to all its absurdity making it weirdly enjoyable that I just don’t see much reason to dislike it anymore. Looking up some of the reviews David Edelstein, who more than some critics out there is sometimes willing to give things the benefit of the doubt, seems to be just about the only one not looking to stick it on a worst film’s list, expressing admiration for Frankenheimer’s familiar style and concluding, “The picture is an empty parlor trick, but it’s carried out with a master’s concentration.” The craft to it all displays a professionalism that may not qualify as consciously old school but there’s an undeniable confidence to it which gets the job done, with an eye towards making it all work that doesn’t really seem to be all that present in souped-up CGI-crazed action movies anymore. As a director John Frankenheimer made films that ranged all over the map in terms of quality. This one definitely isn’t in the top half but I wouldn’t put it quite at the bottom either. How’s that for praise?
I’ve got no real beef with Ben Affleck. He seems like a smart guy who genuinely wants to make good movies now. I’d like to think that he took the money he made for this (or maybe it’s just one of several movies he owed the Weinsteins) and got something out of the experience of working with Frankenheimer, lessons he uses as a director now. Not to mention how his performance in THE TOWN feels a little more lived in than his pretty boy just released from prison here, one who barely seems to have spent five hours in lockup let alone five years. He seems totally down with all the physicality the part requires (his director also seems to enjoy working with his angular features within the frame), he’s just too lightweight to ever be really believable and I don’t buy him for a second. I’d still want to ask him about this movie if I ever got the chance. Gary Sinise, almost always a terrific actor, also never really sells that he’s actually this tough guy no matter how many times he snarls and displays how he obviously got pumped up for the role. I kind of half expect there to be another twist where it’s revealed that this long hair biker garb is some sort of disguise (I guess this is a spoiler, but that’s one twist the movie doesn’t have) so ultimately it just feels like a case of miscasting. Charlize Theron has been somewhat unkind about the movie in print (to Esquire – “That was a bad, bad, bad movie. But even though the movie might suck, I got to work with John Frankenheimer. I wasn't lying to myself -- that's why I did it.” So points to her as well) but she really does give the best performance in the film and is kind of awesome, veering between believable vulnerability and total femme fatale, always seeming present and active in scenes. For the record, I should also point out that there are a few nude scenes by Theron as well. Just for the record, you understand. Clarence Williams III, Danny Trejo and Donal Logue play Sinise’s three imposing cohorts and I get the feeling that only Williams knows what to do with all those moments of quiet menace in his close-ups throughout and based on how he shoots him I get the feeling that Frankenheimer really loved working with this guy (both Sinise and Williams, incidentally, also star in the director’s cable movie GEORGE WALLACE and they’re both brilliant in it). Dennis Farina is very enjoyable in what is basically the Dennis Farina role, even if I wish he had more screen time, and for some reason Isaac Hayes turns up for a moment as a prisoner who recites the legendary line, “There’s monsters in the gelatin!” Maybe strangest of all is the early appearance by Ashton Kutcher as “College Kid” who Affleck pulls a bait and switch with at one point in the casino. One quick shot of him talking to an extra when seen at a distant is so strangely phony, like he can’t even pretend to be saying something to another person, almost looks now like it was added after the fact on an episode of “Punk’d” or some late night comedy show.
Just think about this for a second. John Frankenheimer had a directing career which spanned from the likes of Burt Lancaster and Frank Sinatra all the way to Ben Affleck and Ashton Kutcher. Some might see that as a comedown but it’s still impressive nevertheless and of course he made one more film after this starring the likes of Michael Gambon, Alec Baldwin and Donald Sutherland (as well as Gary Sinise, reprising his role as George Wallace in a cameo). PATH TO WAR is of course as different from REINDEER GAMES as possible and yet the fact that he was a director who was attracted to both kinds of material, approaching each with a similar kind of passion evident in the approach, only underlines his wide range of talents as well as what a loss it was when he died. I have a feeling that my sneaking admiration for REINDEER GAMES will only grow as time goes on as I look for disreputable holiday movies to watch over the season. It’s not that good. It’s kind of unpleasant. It’s really nothing that I could or should defend. I guess I don’t really mind it. Maybe Christmas brings that out in you sometimes.