The best movie thrillers, no matter how outrageous the plot twists or how fickle the characters, exhibit their own sense of logic. The stories may turn on a dime, the narrative may leave the viewer with a severe case of whiplash, but the audience keeps believing.
Then there are the thrillers where the writers insert a plot twist just because it's time for a plot twist, shift a character's mood simply because they can and carefully calculate the number of turns-on-a-dime. The audience never starts believing.
Regrettably, "Reindeer Games," the latest high-rev Merlin's-knot-of-a-film from veteran director John Frankenheimer ("The Manchurian Candidate," "Seconds," "Ronin"), this time working with wonder boy screenwriter Ehren Kruger ("Scream 3," "Arlington Road"), is more the latter than the former. The out-of-control plot doesn't unfold gracefully or organically; it simply speeds along with no regard for anything other then getting to the next plot twist, where it can stop and admire its own ingenuity.
Trouble starts the instant cute couple Rudy and Ashley (Ben Affleck and Charlize Theron) are thrown together. He's a just-released convict whose best friend, Nick, was killed the day before in a prison knife fight; she's the pen-pal his bud's been writing to for years, waxing poetically from prison and building a relationship that, even though she's never seen him (apparently Polaroids are outside his realm of expertise), has left them devoted to each other.
Rudy's intentions for his post-prison life start out simple enough: he wants to go home, have a nice Christmas and live quietly ever after. But one look at Ashley, standing in the driving snow in her tight jeans, waiting for the pen pal who's never going to show, changes his mind. He tells her he's Nick, plays all vulnerable and misty-eyed, and before long the two have checked into a nearby motel.
Quickly, all heck breaks loose. The party's soon crashed by Ashley's psychotic brother, Gabriel (Gary Sinise, all stringy haired and wild-eyed), who figures Rudy/Nick is his ticket to the big time. Using knowledge Nick gathered while working as a security guard at a Native-American casino, Gabriel and his goons will storm the place and get away with $1 million or so.
Rudy tries convincing the bad guys he's not Nick, but when Gabriel greets that news with a promise to kill him, he thinks better of that plan. So it's time for some fast talking; not only does Rudy have to keep making like Nick, he has to pretend he knows everything Nick would have known.
And, while he's at it, keep trying to escape into the snowy northern Michigan countryside.
As the central figures in this wild ride, Affleck and Theron never generate much in the way of heat (she basically spends the whole movie looking worried). Sinise's one-dimensional psycho, while properly menacing, is the sort of bad-guy role he should have moved beyond by now.
Frankenheimer, whose credentials as an action director have been earned over five decades, does his best to keep the movie zipping along; in fact, the attack on the casino ranks with his best sequences (and suggests he's seen a John Woo movie or two). But the movie keeps piling left turn upon left turn, to the point where pacing is neglected altogether.
Both screenwriter and director are capable of much better. Frankenheimer's taut "Ronin" was one of the best films of 1998, while "Arlington Road" proved Kruger knows how to let a story develop under its own power. Their best collaboration is yet to come.
Starring Ben Affleck, Charlize Theron and Gary Sinise
Directed by John Frankenheimer
Released by Dimension Films
Rated R (strong violence, language and sexuality)
Running time 104 minutes
Sun score **