I hated the “thriller” Reindeer Games when it premiered in 2000, yet I’ve spent the last twelve years trying to remember it fondly.  For all its faults, the film marks the last theatrical feature from the late director John Frankenheimer, and the Manchurian Candidate fan in me is loath to dismiss anything from him.

Thing is, the B-minus rating I would have awarded it prior to today was based on Frankenheimer’s good name rather than any solid memories (my brain must have erased the first viewing experience, Men in Black-style.  Never a good sign).  Lionsgate’s Blu-ray gave me a second chance to look again for the good, and the result?

I should have listened to my 2000 gut.

Reindeer Games represents a nadir in Miramax/Dimension’s history; it is hubris made flesh, the Weinstein Brothers’ fabled (and terrifying) confidence turned against them.  Following a string of critical and commercial hits (The English Patient, Scream, Good Will Hunting, Shakespeare in Love), the Weinsteins became convinced that their marketing bluster could make even the most unwilling cinematic creation turn a profit.  That’s the whole reason the brothers Weinstein founded Dimension—this Miramax offshoot could churn out genre cheapies that would generate a quick buck.  Don’t believe me?  Phantoms, She’s All That, Senseless, Mimic 2, Nightwatch, or Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead.  No one talks about these because no one should, and the list could go on and on.

But these movies justified the Weinstein’s aims; they made money.  Reindeer Games didn’t, and had Dimension tossed it off with some aggressive marketing, it would’ve recouped its production budget before living a long, full life as one of those sleazy titles you see at Blockbuster that usually stars Antonio Sabato Jr. (positioned on the cover next to a hot girl and surrounded by fire) and is never available for rental.

However, the Weinsteins thought themselves bulletproof, and so they hired a talented ensemble that included one Academy Award-winner (Ben Affleck), a beloved nominee (Lieutenant Dan himself, Mr. Gary Sinise), a beautiful ingénue who would become one of the screen’s most respected actresses (Charlize Theron), and great screen tough guys like Danny Trejo, Donal Logue, and Clarence Williams III.

The real coup de grace?  Securing Frankenheimer as director, who two years earlier had delivered the critically beloved-but-commercially deficient actioner Ronin.  With this cast and crew, Reindeer Games went from Z-Grade to the A-List, and I still remember the thrills and suspense promised by the film’s explosive Super Bowl ad.

For all the talent the Weinsteins assembled, they never bothered to address the link in the chain: Ehren Kruger’s subliterate script.  Kruger took a premise that read like the great Elmore Leonard novel never written—a just-released ex-con (Affleck) assumes his murdered cellmate’s identity to score with his former roommate’s beautiful pen pal (Theron) and then finds himself at the mercy of her criminal brother (Sinise), who wants information the dead man had in order to rob a casino—and just turned it into dogs**t.

Ignoring, for a moment, that we are to accept Ben Affleck as a crafty, street-smart car thief (while films like Hollywoodland and The Town have helped Affleck grow into an actor of some depth, in 2000 his dramatic wheelhouse contained only a certain fratboy insouciance), we still must contend with the inanities of Kruger’s script, which only functions (and I’m being really generous using the “f” word) if you don’t know the ending.  Kruger fashions a series of double-and-triple-crosses that logistically invalidate 90% of the preceding film.

Not that things were swell before the finale.  Even this director’s cut reeks of studio interference, meaning we have to endure intermittent, artless voiceovers from Affleck explaining his predicament.  Kruger’s tone-deaf dialogue skills do no one any favors—I wish I could unsee the unfunny subplot with Dennis Farina as the casino’s flop-sweat-covered manager—and he gives Affleck’s character so many inane, unfunny “witticisms” that it’s a wonder Sinise doesn’t shoot him five minutes into their first confrontation (the worst: Sinise orders him to say something nice to Theron, and he responds with “I’ve had better sex in prison.”  G.B. Shaw, the gauntlet has been thrown down!).

As a result, Kruger’s villains have no menace.  We fall into an endless loop of baddies glowering and beating Affleck senseless (the picture’s saving grace—besides naked Charlize Theron—is Frankenheimer’s brutal, messy staging of violence), yet no one inflicts any permanent damage on our hero, even when he’s cracking wise and screwing Sinise’s plans over with fake information.

You’d expect someone of Kruger’s “caliber” to now be flipping burgers at an In-N-Out, but alas: his work on The Ring and the last two Transformers movies has made him wildly successful.  I guarantee he’s got a secret blackmail file.

Reindeer Games is a dog through and through, and its biggest sin is pretending to be anything but.  This process of turd-gilding carried on after production; the Weinsteins contracted Forrest Gump composer Alan Silvestri to write the score and then brought in Steven Spielberg’s longtime editor Michael Kahn to cut out the bad stuff (had Kahn sense, we’d be left with Theron boobs and nothing more).  Bob and Harvey even let Frankenheimer create a new director’s cut for DVD in the hopes that they could change the film’s reputation.  Newsflash: Reindeer Games now takes twenty minutes longer to suck at telling the same story.

It’s their White Whale, and for that reason alone, it deserves a footnote in the canon.  I guess people will always see it and remember Frankenheimer.

Pity it’s for the wrong reasons.

Lionsgate’s Blu-ray of the Reindeer Games director’s cut offers an inconsistent transfer—clarity and contrast vary from good to not-so-good.  Better is the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track.  We get a surprising amount of supplements; Frankenheimer delivers a solid commentary, and the disc also has a trailer, one EPK featurette, and alternate scenes taken from the theatrical cut.

Reindeer Games streets on March 6th.  Click HERE for Amazon’s page listing.

Home Culture Movie Review: Even John Frankenheimer's Director's Cut Can't Save REINDEER GAMES