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by: Michael Dequina

Ben Affleck is such a gosh-darn likable fella. In every film (not to mention talk show appearance) he does, he projects an ebullient, affable charisma that easily endears him to the audience. However, it's that very quality that defeats him and the entirety of Reindeer Games--though, in all fairness, there are plenty of others to blame for how the film goes wrong.

Reindeer was written by Ehren Kruger, and after making a strong debut with last summer's chilling Arlington Road, he is beginning to look like a one-trick pony. He ruined the Scream trilogy with his weak script for its final installment, and now comes this film, which, I must admit, has the seed of a good idea at its core. Affleck plays Rudy Duncan, a just-released convict who decides to pose as his just-murdered cellmate Nick to get some action with Ashley (Charlize Theron), with whom Nick shared a passionate mail correspondence. But the roll in the hay comes at a price--turns out that Ashley's brother Gabriel wants "Nick" to help in the robbery of a casino where "Nick" once worked. Of course, the problem is, not only is "Nick" not really Nick, but he also hasn't the slightest idea how to pull off a heist--Rudy served time for grand theft auto.

Numerous twists ensue, and per Dimension's request (as stated in a disclaimer at the top of the press notes), I won't reveal any more. While a number of the turns are genuinely surprising, they soon spring out of control. By the final reel, the script twists for the mere sake of twisting, going for the cheap shock at the expense of all logic or sense of reality. It could be countered that Kruger never takes the material too seriously, throwing in numerous one-liners to break the tension. But, as evidenced in Scream 3, Kruger isn't much of a comedy writer, and the failed attempts at humor end up taking viewers out of the increasingly complicated story rather than making it more enjoyable.

With such a script so uneven in tone, it's little wonder that the performances are wildly varied. One minute Sinise is a sinister villain, the next minute he's somewhat of a buffoon. At least he tries to ride along with the material, unlike the other two leads, who nail one extreme and stick with it. Theron is a good actress and a stunning screen presence, but she plays her character much too straight, making certain turns of events that much more preposterous. Affleck plays up the jokiness of the script, and while that famously light approach has worked elsewhere, it isn't quite what's needed in this type of action thriller. Certainly Bruce Willis cracks wise in all of his action vehicles, but when it came down to business, he was a convincing tough guy; Affleck, on the other hand, has a look of smug bemusement on his face most of the time, as if to knowingly mock the ridiculous affair. If our hero doesn't appear to believe--or believe in--what's going on, how does one expect the audience to?

The audience may not believe in Reindeer Games, but director John Frankenheimer does his best to at least keep them superficially interested. The film is fast-paced; the numerous suspense and action scenes are all smoothly done, and every now and again one is able to get a momentary adrenaline rush. But the excitement is just that, momentary and very fleeting--proving that without a story or characters to really care about, an action thriller is, to borrow the term Gabriel uses in the film, just a silly little reindeer game.

RATING: ** 1/2 (out of *****)


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