John Frankenheimer still does suspense like no one else.

Master of the Games 

John Frankenheimer still does suspense like no one else.

Affleck and Theron in the latest  by far  hit of the holiday season.
  • Affleck and Theron in the latest by far hit of the holiday season.
Director John Frankenheimer has been putting bad guys on the street since Luca Brazzi slept with a teddy bear, and he shows no sign of letting up at age 70. In Reindeer Games, a relentless (and relentlessly witty) crime thriller set in the frozen wastes of northern Michigan, a sleazy gunrunner bent on robbing an Indian casino kidnaps the hero, a reformed car thief named Rudy Duncan, who's just gotten out of the penitentiary. The gunrunner and his crew promptly beat the hero senseless, point seven or eight automatic weapons at his head, and explain how he's going to help them pull off the caper. They know, after all, that, before Duncan did his time, he was a security guard at the casino, so he understands the ins and outs of the place.

By the way, it's almost Christmas, so jaunty little holiday ditties keep popping up on the soundtrack to good comic effect. The robbers plan to wear Santa Claus suits on the job. There is also (as there must be) a woman of mystery: in this case, the exceptionally sleek sister of the gunrunner. She's been exchanging overheated letters with the hero, sight unseen, while he was in the joint. Naturally, it's snowing. And, as we've come to expect in Frankenheimer country, nobody is quite what he or she seems, and nothing is exactly on the square. From The Manchurian Candidate (1962) to the unsung 52 Pick-Up (1986) to Ronin (1998), Frankenheimer has been providing vivid lowlifes and yanking our chains in the double- and triple-cross department, and the great action stylist does it here again with renewed energy and what appears to be redoubled glee. Think of it -- four decades in the movie business, and the guy's still in a position to make trouble, his own trademark brand of trouble. We should all be so lucky.

Frankenheimer's lean, muscular style of moviemaking has influenced every tough-guy director from Michael Mann to Quentin Tarantino, and so has his uncanny way with actors. In Reindeer Games, Frankenheimer shares the wealth with a new generation of actors, and they come across for him.

Ben Affleck, for one, seems to be extraordinarily focused as Rudy Duncan, the ex-con who now desires nothing more than to have Christmas dinner at home, sleep in his old bed, and watch ball games on the tube with Dad. Rudy is, of course, just the latest in a long line of movie crooks who want to go straight and can't, but Affleck brings the right contemporary edge to the part. He means well, and he's a nimble thinker, but he can't help acting the wise guy when he shouldn't. As for Charlize Theron, late of The Cider House Rules, Frankenheimer gives the beauty with the bee-stung lips every chance to sizzle, despite frigid landscapes straight out of Fargo or A Simple Plan. As Ashley, the pen pal who thinks she's found love in the state pen via U.S. mail, Theron strikes just the right balance between little-girl neediness and grown-up lust. Of course, this countrified film noir requires more of her and her character than that -- and she delivers admirably.

Colorful bad guys? As always, Frankenheimer stocks up. Gary Sinise, who recently played a different sort of villain for the director when they collaborated on the highly regarded TV drama George Wallace, leads the way here as Ashley's vicious redneck brother Gabriel, who means to take down the casino as just reward for the five million grueling miles he's logged as a truck driver. His hair hangs in nasty strings, he's set his brain on perma-scam, and he's the kind of guy who will throw bar darts at a captive's head. Gabriel's henchmen may not be quite as magnetic as the lowdown types in 52 Pick-Up -- they were the peerless Elmore Leonard's creations, after all -- but they'll have to do until, say, the Coen Brothers return to rural Minnesota. We've got Clarence Williams III's Merlin, the glowering muscle of Gabriel's crew; Donal Logue as Pug, whose IQ is about room temp; and Danny Trejo as Jumpy, whose nickname says it all, and whose face is pure mug shot. Issue these guys heavy artillery, put them in Santa suits, and you know things are bound to go wrong on Christmas eve at the forlorn Tomahawk Casino. But first, Frankenheimer and screenwriter Ehren Kruger (Arlington Road, Scream 3) give us a nice comic jolt in the form of the deluded casino manager, Jack Bangs (Dennis Farina), a Vegas exile who can't believe he's now in this neck of the woods. "No one even comes here to cheat!" poor Jack laments.

Gabriel and company do mean to rob the place, and that opens a Pandora's box of deceptions and twists. It also gives a veteran filmmaker the chance to strut his stuff in high style. How about a little ice fishing -- not for pike, but for a pair of humans? How about Charlize and Ben practically setting the sheets on fire in a $20 motel room? How about a 9-millimeter that turns out to be a squirt gun -- but still figures as a deadly weapon? How about a final act as littered with corpses as a Greek tragedy? In this beautifully devious, exceptionally well-made entertainment, Mr. John Frankenheimer does it all and more, with the assurance of an old master.

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