A Case of Mistaken Identity

Reindeer Games (2000)

We recently discuss Ben Affleck's career of the late 1990s and early 2000s, before he made Gigli and tanked a lot of the good will people had for him. He would regularly do Blockbuster moneymakers interspersed with art-house fare, taking a "one for the career, one for the bank" approach (at least, that's what his good friend Kevin Smith stated when discussing Affleck). This led to some solid movies, but also dreck like Paycheck. He wasn't always choosy with his films, it seemed, so long as there was a decent paycheck to be had from it (making the movie Paycheck all too prophetic, really).

Reindeer Games

And on the subject of paycheck movies, we have the 2000 Christmas-based action film Reindeer Games. The movie came at went at the Box Office with little fanfare, barely making $32 Mil against a $42 Mil budget, quite an under-performer although it's likely the studio suspected that would be the case as they released the film not during the holiday season (as you'd think for a Christmas-based film) but in the February dead zone. This was a movie destined to fail, which it did (probably in part because it was meant for the holidays and released nowhere nearby). But is the film really that bad?

No, not really. Fact is that this is a decent, if not exceptionally thrilling, action film that takes its cues from Die HardThe 1980s were famous for the bombastic action films released during the decade. Featuring big burly men fighting other big burly men, often with more guns, bombs, and explosions than appear in Michael Bay's wildest dreams, the action films of the decade were heavy on spectacle, short on realism. And then came a little film called Die Hard that flipped the entire action genre on its head. and Lethal Weapon (it very much feels of-a-piece with those films, and not just because of the Christmas setting). There are flaws with the film, to be sure, but it's decently acted and competently made. I think the studio way over spent with its $42 Mil as this doesn't feel like it was ever designed to be a giant success. But made properly, and marketed right, this could have been a fun little sleeper hit. It isn't, however, anywhere near the top of a list of Ben Affleck's best films. Not even close.

In the film, Affleck plays Rudy Duncan, a prisoner doing time for carjacking. He and his best buddy / cell mate Nick Cassidy (James Frain) are both two days out from release and Nick is super stoked; he has a girl on the outside, Ashley (Charlize Theron), that he's been writing to since he got in (part of the Prison Pen Pal system) and they'll finally get to meet and spend the holidays together. Rudy, meanwhile, just has a cup of hot cocoa waiting for him (even thought he absolutely lusts after Annie). Sadly, Nick gets knifed in a prison fight leaving Rudy, and Annie, each alone for the holidays. That is until Rudy (stupidly, and he knows it) pretends to be Nick so that he can be with Annie.

Everything goes well for a little while, right up until Annie's brother, Gabriel (Gary Sinise), shows up with his thuggish friends. They take Rudy / Nick hostage and demand to know all that Nick knows about the casino Nick used to work at. It seems Nick let slip in his letters some details about the casino and Gabe wants to rob the place. But Rudy, of course, never worked at the casino and despite telling everyone he's not Nick, he still gets shoved into the casino job. Now Rudy has to improvise on the fly and try to help these guys with a robbery he knows nothing about lest they all kill him. It's quite the heist for the holidays.

There are a few issues with the film, all in the construction of the movie, and the first is the character of Rudy himself. The fact that Rudy is a watchable character at all is thanks to the generally good natured performance given by Ben Affleck. The issue isn't so much the actor's performance but in the big ask from the film at the start of the movie. It wants you to like Rudy despite him (a) being an ex-con who then (b) pretends to be someone else so he can immediately sleep with an unsuspecting, and generally very sweet, young woman. The first thing, him being an ex-con, isn't so bad on its own and if it was just a matter of mistaken identity, thugs wanting him to pull a job for them despite him protesting they have the wrong guy, it would just make for some solid color (and background motivation), for the scenario. But him sleeping with Annie when she thinks he's Nick is creepy to a high level.

Yes, there are twists that make this whole scenario play better in the film, but that first 20 minutes or so is a big hill for viewers to get over and I could see some of them tuning out (or turning off the movie when it was on basic cable). Whatever happens with Annie, Gabe, and the rest of the crew down the road (which we'll get to in a second), the fact is that Rudy digs himself a big hole, and then acts like a shitty person to Annie afterwards (because she thinks he's Nick even after he said he wasn't, which itself could be read as her realizing she let him sleep with her and then she's just trying to put her life back together). It's a really tough sell for any movie to pull off.

That's likely why the film has to pile on twist after twist just to make Rudy out to be the hero. First we learn that Gabriel isn't Annie's brother but her boyfriend. This sets it up so that Rudy is the patsy here, played by Annie so he could help her pull off a heist, only he was the wrong guy since she was writing to Nick and Nick is dead. That alone makes a bit of karmic justice for everyone and it does kind of absolve Rudy of his guilt (without making the first twenty minutes any more bearable). Annie is a bad person too, guys! It all works out!

Then the film really goes for broke and sets it up in one last, end-movie twist, that Nick isn't actually dead (spoilers for a twenty year old film). It seems that Annie isn't even Annie but, instead, is Millie, the girl that Nick went to prison for when he came to her rescue in a bar fight, killing a guy (manslaughter) in the ensuing brawl. Ever since, Millie and Nick plotted out a scheme with layers upon layers, all so that they could use Rudy as their patsy and get away, together, scot free. And this is where the film loses me because they could have done all the previous twists and it would have been fine, but this last twist stretches credulity. It's a twist on the level of "the villain gets himself captured all to further his own plan" and it just makes the ending of the film into a farce.

I think, to make this film work, you have to change around a few of the details. Rudy could pretend to be Nick just to give Annie a good holiday, but he has to stop short of actually sleeping with her. Gabriel could still get pissed at him, still want to kill him, but it makes Rudy into a more decent guy if he's just being nice to Annie. Annie could be a bad guy, sure, although I think it works better in this scenario if she's just Gabe's sister. Then the two can work a kind of buddy scenario, Annie and Rudy, to foil the casino heist and escape together. I don't think the two necessarily need to end up as lovers after (although Hollywood would dictate the necessity, sure), but at least here everyone that needs to come out of the film as a good person does so.

The fact is that, watching the film, there are some very clear issues. Rudy is a bad guy, and while yes he gets mixed up with worse guys, that doesn't absolve him of his own issues. He deserves to be back in prison, not at home enjoying Christmas dinner (as we see in the last shot of the film), all because he took advantage of a poor young woman. Although, in fairness, he does leave a trail of evidence from the casino heist that is probably going to put him back in the pen for the next 20 to 50.

Reindeer Games is just such a bafflingly written film. It is, in the moment, a decent little action film but it has so many issues, so much twisting and spinning going on all to redeem a hero that shouldn't be redeemed, that you have to wonder how anyone thought this film was a good idea. It's watchable but bad all at the same time. It was, thankfully, quietly killed at the Box Office and only remains a memory to anyone that saw it (repeatedly) on basic cable in the years after its theatrical run.