You know a movie has problems when you can't tell if it's intentionally trying to be funny. Taking 'Reindeer Games' one step beyond that is the fact that nothing funny – intentional or not – happens in the first half the movie, yet the second half is filled with it. If 'Reindeer Games' had kept the all-too-serious tone of the first half, it would be a bad movie. The dark humor of the second half works, but because it is absent in the first half, 'Reindeer Games' is a barely-above-average caper flick.
The premise is great. Ben Affleck plays Rudy, a convict nearing the end of his five-year stretch in an upstate Michigan prison for boosting cars. He has served his time. He's a rehabilitated man. All he wants to do when he gets out is enjoy the little things in life that he took for granted before – like a milkshake from his favorite diner and the upcoming peace of his family's Christmas traditions – but outside factors are about to thwart his plans (not unlike 'Con Air').
Just two days before Rudy's release, a cafeteria riot results in his cellmate buddy Nick (James Frain) getting shanked and killed. Both were set to get out on the same day, so when Rudy walks out of the pen all alone, he notices Nick's pen-pal girlfriend Ashley (Charlize Theron) waiting for him. She has no way of knowing that he died and, having never met him before, has no idea what he looks like, so Rudy makes the questionable decision to pose as Nick and seize the opportunity to spend some quality time with a gorgeous woman. Wink-wink, nudge-nudge. After a wildly passionate session in their rank hotel room, Rudy flushes his driver's license down the toilet to conceal his real identity so that he can build a serious relationship with Ashley on the grounds that he is Nick - but, once again, outside forces are about to derail his plans.
When returning to the hotel one evening, Ashley's gun-smuggling psychotic brother Gabriel (Gary Sinise) makes a surprise visit and gives Rudy a prison-style beating. Knowing that Nick used to work security in a small local Indian casino, Gabriel and his demented crew plan to use their arsenal of guns and Nick's knowledge of the security procedures to hold up the place and walk out millionaires in an epic Christmas Eve robbery – only Rudy knows nothing about the casino. If he reveals that he's not Nick, he will not only lose the girl, but most likely be killed for knowing the gang's plans. And if he plays along and pretends to have Nick's knowledge, it will only be so long before details don't match up and they realize that he's stringing them along. For Rudy, it's a lose-lose scenario.
Gabriel's crew consists of cookie-cutter scenery-chomping henchmen. They make up the first bit of content that's so over-the-top that you're uncertain as to whether they're serious or not. You don't know if you should turn the movie off or laugh at how (supposedly) intentionally bad it is. Having watched the entire film, I walked away with the opinion that you're supposed to laugh at/with them, that they're intentionally meant to be bad – but that idea is subjective. You might walk away with the opposite opinion.
'Reindeer Games' is full of so many twists that it feels like it's making a mockery of movies that rely on twist endings. Only one of the many twists is predictable, which is probably why it's the first one that is revealed. Not a single of the other twists is ever alluded to. There's no way that you could possibly see them coming. No hint or sign is given. Unless you know that twists lie in the road ahead, you're not going to predict what follows. While the twists are smart, most of them are completely unnecessary - but I have to admit that the "pow-wow safe" is one of the coolest things I've ever seen in a heist movie.
Had the Coen Brothers directed 'Reindeer Games,' it would be a classic. Had it been a little bit hammier, 'Reindeer Games' would be much better. But as-is, with its identity crisis, it's a hard title to recommend. I view it in the same light as some of the old horror movies I enjoy from the '80s – if you can find entertainment in something so serious that it's intentionally not meant to be taken seriously, then you just might enjoy it. (No matter who you are, you'll enjoy the brief Ashton Kutcher cameo). But if you don't enjoy terribly good movies, then this is one heist flick you might want to avoid.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Lionsgate has placed this old Miramax title on a Region A BD-50 in an eco-friendly blue keepcase. The only version of the film on the disc is the Director's Cut, featuring approximately 20 minutes of addition and extended footage. The usual slew of skippable content precedes the main menu – Lionsgate and Miramax vanity reels, a commentary disclaimer and trailers for 'Pulp Fiction,' 'Hostage,' 'Rounders,' 'Good Will Hunting' and HD Net. Featured under the audio settings part of the menu is a DTS-HD Sound Check option.
The sloppy 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encoded transfer for 'Reindeer Games' really only gets two things right – the color and the cleanliness of the print. Everything else is a mess.
This transfer is arguably worse than that of the DVD. There is no sharpness to the image whatsoever. The only sharp lines visible throughout the whole film are the result of edge enhancement – which leaves the image with an overall unnatural feel. In this aspect, the DVD must look better than the Blu-ray.
The print has been scrubbed almost entirely clean of dirt and scratches. A few specks pop up here and there, but those instances are rare. The image is also noise-free, but that's only because there's an unhealthy amount of DNR applied. Pixels frequently seem to dance across the faces of the characters, only adding another unnatural level to the film's look. Between the soft transfer and DNR, textures and details are almost entirely lost. Rudy's Sherpa sweater is textureless. Either these actors all have perfect complexions or their pores have been wiped away by the "enhancements."
Black levels are decent, but occasionally consume details. Fleshtones are lifelike and natural, but the colors are definitely the strongest suit – especially the reds. Be it the red of blood or the reds of Santa suits, all the reds in 'Reindeer Games' are vibrant and alive. They're highly saturated, but not overly saturated. Set in front of white snow-covered backdrops, they really pop on screen. Too bad cleanliness and color alone don't make for great transfers.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track begins with an exceptionally strong use of sound. A dark nighttime shot pointed straight up into a snowy sky can been seen while sounds of a blustery winter storm can be heard blowing through the room. At the same time, faint sounds of a prison cell's opening and closing barred gates can be heard. Considering how well-spread these sounds are in the mix, you'd think that the rest of the audio to follow would be superb – but it's not.
The second Ben Affleck's voice-over narration kicks in, you'll wince at the horrible can-like sound of it. The flat and forward hollow dialog starts off really bad and never gets any better. The effects and music, however, remain strong. As inmates begin a chaotic food and shiv fight, all channels light up and place you in the center of the violence-filled action. Bass kicks in so strong during such scenes that it adds to the tension. Because the effects and music are not limited to the front, the surround and rear channels are almost constantly in use. Too bad there aren't any instances of imaging.
There aren't any harsh cracks or pops. The source material is completely clean. It's a shame that the vocals weren't mastered properly.
'Reindeer Games' doesn't work as a serious heist film, but as a dark comedy caper flick it stands a chance. The problem lies in the fact that it never seems to know which of the two it wants to be. It takes the better part of an hour to get to anything that might lead you to believe that it's aiming to be intentionally over-the-top. Considering how heavy and serious the first half is, the terribly good content of the second half can easily be overlooked as nothing more than awful filmmaking. This is one title that you'll just have to sit through to see if you like it or not. But no matter what you think of the movie itself, you'll definitely dislike the extremely soft Blu-ray transfer and the amounts of DNR and edge enhancement applied to make it look "better." The audio would be commendable were it not for the hollow and flat mix of dialog. Aside from a solid director's commentary, the special features leave much to be desired. Considering how Frankenheimer describes the studio's reaction to 'Reindeer Games,' this sham of a Blu-ray release is right on par with their sentiments from 12 years ago.