Reindeer Games

Reindeer Games (1999)
Buena Vista Home Entertainment
Cast: Gary Sinise, Ben Affleck, Charlize Theron, Danny Trejo
Extras: Commentary Track, Featurette, Trailer

When veteran director John Frankenheimer takes a seat in the director’s chair of any movie, expectations are traditionally high. After all, Frankenheimer has created some of the most memorable action thrillers of the past 40 years, and the filmmaker continually topped himself with almost predictable regularity. His recipe for success seems as simple as it is hard to practice – never stand still and always create stories that are different from what you did before. And now, only 2 years after his staggeringly furious polit-thriller "Ronin," Frankenheimer brings us "Reindeer Games," a film that features some of Hollywood’s hippest and most promising actors, and once again a story that is uniquely different from his previous films. One would almost be tempted to say, welcome to the new Millenium!

Rudy (Ben Affleck) and Nick are cell-mates and both are about to be released from prison, but through an accident, Nick is stabbed to death, just days before their release. When his release day finally arrives, outside the prison Rudy sees Nick’s beautiful pen pal Ashley (Charlize Theron) waiting for Nick, unaware of the fact that he had just been killed. In the prospect of a hot weekend with the luscious blonde, Rudy decides to pass himself off as Nick for some time, but the consequences of this decision soon become apparent.

Ashley’s brother Gabriel (Gary Sinise) had been observing them both and has plans to use Nick for a robbery. Inexperienced in the robbery field – other than outright shooting people in his vicious, temperamental outbursts – Gabriel knows from letters to Ashley that Nick, convicted for robbery, used to work for a casino, and his plan is to hold up the casino and take the millions with the convict’s assistance. The problem is that Rudy, passing himself off as Nick, has not the slightest idea about robberies or the casino himself. But in order to stay alive and to get himself and Ashley out of the predicament to see another day, he needs to be inventive – very inventive – to make Gabriel and his henchmen believe that he knows exactly what he’s doing. A task that may appear easier than it really is.

Where "Ronin" fascinated audiences with its racy car stunts and the bleak, yet engaging atmosphere, "Reindeer Games" is very different in tone and execution. Using a love story gone awry as the central premise, this film is a furious action spectacle that oftentimes reminded me more of the Coen Brothers’ "Fargo" than Frankenheimer’s own films. Stylish and larded with dark humor, this film is a highly enjoyable thriller that will take your breath away in excitement.

Ben Affleck, usually a rather uniform actor who seems to keep playing himself over and over again, finally gets his well-deserved break and the chance to show a wider variety of acting talent. With interesting twists, witty dialogues and a wide variety of emotional and physical moments, I have to admit that I am most impressed with the young actor’s work in "Reindeer Games." The same is true for Charlize Theron, the blonde seductress. Blonde and tempting at first, her character undergoes quite a development and Theron makes it believable all the way to the end. Wonderfully naive at times, yet never dumb, she always comes across as believable and real, and as the story unfolds we get to see more and more sides of her character, that are so unlike what you may expect.

As expected, Gary Sinise takes once again the icing on the cake however. It is hard to keep up with this full body actor who makes every one of his performances fascinating, and "Reindeer Games" is no exception from that rule at all. Hypnotizing and maniacal Sinise steals the show without even moving a finger. His weary looks and the wry dialogue delivery, make him a walking menace that never lets up. From the minute he enters the picture to the final frames Sinise commands the movie with his powerful play and gives us a glimpse at just how underused this actor may actually be still.

Buena Vista Home Entertainment has prepared a <$16x9,16x9 enhanced> <$PS,widescreen> version of the movie for release on this DVD that is presenting the movie in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The disc also contains a full screen presentation that is heavily copped on the sides however. The transfer is very clean and without any defects or blemishes. The transfer also nicely captures the movie’s look and produces colors on the screen that are fabulously matching Frankenheimer’s original design. While there are occasional colorful moments, the majority of the film features a bleak, muted and de-saturated look with many grayish-blue tinges. Indoor and outdoor scenes are equally well reproduced and giving the movie the stylized look that Frankenheimer deliberately designed with many muted highlights and low ambient lights. The level of detail found in the transfer is breathtaking, as it leaves even minute details of the picture intact. Even the most subtle textures of the production design and the props are clearly visible and you seem to be able to count the ribs on curtains and drapes throughout the movie. To maintain this level of definition in any transfer, the compression has to be flawless and upon closer examination it is evident that not a hint of a compression artifact has found its way into this meticulous transfer. This is a picture that once again showcases once again just how phenomenal DVD can look.

A <$5.1,5.1 channel> <$DD,Dolby Digital> audio track complements the images on screen, and it is just as impressive as the video presentation. With a wide frequency response, the track has a very natural quality that gives the film realism despite its stylized visuals. With aggressive surround usage the film creates an engaging experience that bombards the viewer with sound from all sides. Dialogues are well integrated and are never drowned out in the overall mix. Always understandable, dialogues are also well integrated in the front stage with good stereo imaging. The track has a great bass extension and in key moments it will give the audio presentation a fantastic boost in the bottom that makes this thrilling story as heart-pounding as it is humorous.

An audio <$commentary,commentary track> by director John Frankenheimer can also be found on the disc, and Frankenheimer gets right in to it. From the opening shots to the final frames, his commentary is full of valuable information and insight in to the process of the making of this movie. In detail, he explains his approach to certain scenes and also freely offers alternate thoughts that he had before shooting the film and that eventually got changed around. At the end of this commentary you will get away with the very satisfying feeling that Frankenheimer has been taking as openly and candidly about the movie and his intentions as you could possible have wished for.
The disc also features a 6-minute featurette that takes you behind the scenes and offers some insight, especially into John Frankenheimer’s work through interviews with cast members and himself.

What a film! Exhilarating to the last moment and intensely gripping, "Reindeer Games" is a movie that got everything right and features a flawless execution of the story, which itself is full of exciting developments and interesting characters. It shows what difference it can make to have a modern movie created by a veteran filmmaker who has visibly more experience and maturity that found in most of the current release crop who bring us so-called "modern" films. The DVD that Buena Vista Home Entertainment is presenting here is equally flawless, making it even more enjoyable and entertaining to watch this movie that has been grossly overlooked in theaters. "Reindeer Games" is an all-round winner! John Frankenheimer, at the age of 70, proves once again that he is still on top of his game – the "Reindeer Game" that is!