Rudy Duncan (Ben Affleck) has been serving a prison term for car theft, five years out of his life that are now almost over as he just has three days to go before he is released. He shares a cell with Nick Cassidy (James Frain) who is also being released soon, and they have become good friends, with Nick sharing stories of his pen pal Ashley (Charlize Theron) who has promised him a warm welcome when he does get out. Rudy is taken with the photographs she sends, and jokes that he should really meet with her first to test the waters, though Nick isn't impressed with that suggestion. One element that may throw a spanner in the works is a new arrival, The Alamo (Dana Stubblefield) who believes Rudy double crossed him and when a disturbance occurs, he makes his move...
The disturbance being caused by cockroaches in the dessert which sparks a riot, but Reindeer Games, also known as Deception, was one of those films where after the big revelations of the finale had you thinking back and wondering about details like that and whether someone at the prison had improbably orchestrated the foreign bodies to kick things off, such things being both the riot and what happens to the Rudy character. As the title suggested this was a Christmas-set movie, with the lead even presumably called Rudolph after the red-nosed reindeer of the popular festive song, and a short opening sequence consisting of a montage of a collection of dead Santa Clauses (Santas Claus?) to have you trying to work out where they fit into the plot later on.
There was also snow on the ground and the characters occasionally quoting Christmassy media, though really this could have been set at any time of year and the Yuletide aspect was more a gimmick to render this a shade more distinctive than it might otherwise have been. Ehren Kruger was your man on script duties, marking himself out briefly as a writer of twisty thrillers after this and Arlington Road, though that fell by the wayside when penning Transformers flicks for Michael Bay predominated. Some may have observed they preferred his work when he was not so bombastic in his stylings, but the truth was in spite of a downbeat palette here the way this moved ahead was towards a last ten minutes that were as preposterous as they were hard to believe.
Nevertheless, if you've made it that far then you might have found yourself quite enjoying Reindeer Games precisely because it was farfetched, but not in a roll your eyes, forget this sort of way, more in a traditional Hollywood thriller fashion that made it of a piece with the noirish heist movies of the fifties, complete with a storyline that sees to it the protagonist has to go through hell and is not even sure he's going to make it out the other side. It all starts to go horribly wrong when Nick is fatally stabbed by the Alamo while trying to protect Rudy during the riot, and on the day of release Rudy trudges towards the bus to take him into town when he notices a hopeful Ashley waiting outside the gates. Now, she doesn't know what Nick looked like, so our not-so-heroic hero sees an opportunity.
That's right, he pretends to be Nick, yet just as with all those other film noir leading men that slip in his moral compass provides the jumping off point for deep trouble, possibly out of proportion to his misdemeanour. Ashley has a brother, you see, so after a night of passion the new couple are making plans for the future and Gabriel (Gary Sinise) appears with his gang, beating up Rudy (Affleck does seem to spend a lot of this movie acting out pain) and demanding he show them around the casino Nick used to work in, with a view to robbing it. This was the last film directed by John Frankenheimer, and if no one comes across as particularly convinced they're doing their best work here then a sheen of professionalism, even a little finesse, carries it along with pace and a discernable sense of humour. The cast was a solid one, if nothing else, with a selection of character players in support to the three leads including Dennis Farina as the casino owner and among the gang Danny Trejo and Clarence Williams III, again leaving an experience that was admitedly daffy, but enjoyable too. Music by Alan Silvestri.