THE UNPOPULAR OPINION is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATHED. We’re hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Enjoy!
****SOME SPOILERS ENSUE****
Movie fans have long debated the eternal question: is DIE HARD a Christmas movie? While set during Christmas, many see the violent action flick as the antithesis of the Yuletide season while others consider it mandatory viewing during this festive time of family and cheer. There are several movies set during Christmas that could fall into this same debate including LETHAL WEAPON and even IRON MAN 3. But, today I would like to look back at one of the most underrated Christmas set action films: 2000’s REINDEER GAMES. Starring Ben Affleck, Charlize Theron, and Gary Sinise, REINDEER GAMES is a pulpy and fun heist flick full of memorable one-liners and is responsible for kickstarting a new wave of less nihilitic action films.
In the early 2000s, movies were still reeling from Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie copycats. Everyone wanted to be the next PULP FICTION or LOCK, STOCK AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS. Action films all had a dark and jaded world view and had lost the fun that action flicks had in the 1980s. In came John Frankenheimer, the legendary filmmaker behind THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, SECONDS, and BLACK SUNDAY. While Frankenheimer had directed the notoriously bad THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU, he also delivered one of the most memorable action thrillers of all time in 1998’s RONIN. When he came aboard the production of REINDEER GAMES, it seemed like his, unbeknownst at the time, final film was going to be one hell of a ride.
Scripted by Ehren Kruger, REINDEER GAMES harkens back to the days of DIE HARD where we have a film with a sense of humor but also doesn’t sacrifice over the top action. Frankenheimer takes what could have arguably been a smaller film more in line with RESERVOIR DOGS and makes it more of a Christmas themed take on the following year’s 3000 MILES TO GRACELAND. Instead of Elvis, we get Santas, and that sets this up to be more fun than it should have been. While Ben Affleck, Charlize Theron, and Gary Sinise were nowhere near the caliber of Kevin Costner and Kurt Russell at the time, REINDEER GAMES manages to let these actors chew the scenery and have fun with a completely ridiculous premise.
Both 3000 MILES TO GRACELAND and REINDEER GAMES were savagely reviewed by critics and largely ignored by audiences, but both are a lot of fun to watch because the actors are in on the joke. What REINDEER GAMES had as an advantage was the talent of John Frankenheimer behind the camera. Taking Kruger’s twisty story which includes multiple red herrings and twists, Frankenheimer delivers a movie that is far more complex than a typical B-level action movie would have. Elevating the material thanks to his eye for framing (see the pool conversation between Sinise and Theron) and giving us action set-pieces that are not obscured by shaky camera work, Frankenheimer makes REINDEER GAMES incredibly easy to watch.
Ben Affleck, who would go on to much bigger profile roles and award-winning directorial work, is the weakest actor here and yet he handles the silliest dialogue in a completely serious manner, adding a level of realism to his portrayal of an ex-con caught in a web of lies. Charlize Theron, still riding her early fame from roles like THE DEVIL’S ADVOCATE, MIGHTY JOE YOUNG, and THE CIDER HOUSE RULES, has been famously critical of REINDEER GAMES, calling it her worst movie. I disagree as she was free in this part to play Ashley as a lighter character and not one bogged down by her celebrity. But, the best performance in the movie goes to Gary Sinise. Channeling the physical appearance of his FORREST GUMP character Lt. Dan, Sinise makes Gabriel a psychotic and yet oddly charming villain. In fact, Sinise would have been one hell of a Marvel nemesis if he were to use this performance as a template. He is Michael Bay-level dastardly and imbues his role with every scene-chewing bone in his body.
While budgeted at $42 million, REINDEER GAMES looks every bit big budget as some major Hollywood action movies but is more in line with an indie heist flick. John Frankenheimer and cinematographer Alan Caso do admirable work with the location shooting done in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to make ths film look and feel tangible. Composer Alan Silvestri delivered a fun action soundtrack that pops with seasonal sounds as well as perfect scoring to the twisted holiday setting. And hell, any movie that gets cameos from both Ashton Kutcher and Ron Jeremy is an instant must-see. While it sounds like several cast members had creative disagreements with Frankenheimer, including Vin Diesel who was originally set to play the role Donal Logue ended up in, the finished project suffers from studio mandated reshoots and is not the vision the filmmaker originally set out to make.
REINDEER GAMES, like DIE HARD, is a fun action movie that takes some intense and violent action sequences and combines them with a sense of humor. The finished movie is not a masterpiece and is not Frankenheimer’s best film, but it is a worthy addition to his filmography. Twenty years after it hit theaters, the movie is still a fun little romp that requires your attention to dissect the various intricacies of the plot and has a lot of fun moments with Ben Affleck and Charlize Theron very early in their careers. So if you are feeling tired of the same old Christmas fare, throw on REINDEER GAMES and I am sure you will have a smile on your face by the time the end credits roll.