Ben Affleck steals his dead friend's pen-pal girlfriend by pretending to be him, then goes on a heist to rob a Michigan casino on Christmas Eve with her brother. It's a catalogue of awful, awful decisions.
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ Let's start with the good parts. It certainly is set at Christmas, and there's a whole lot of snow. This may seem like pretty standard Christmas stuff, but you'd be surprised how overlooked it can be. The heist itself takes place on Christmas Eve, and the gang all dress as Santas. Why? Because "you won't be able to just walk in there and take the money". The logical is fallible, but the Christmas relationship is pretty darn inescapable.
There's also a moral at the end (I shan't spoil it), and we see the final character doing a spot of Christmas good will (still dressed as Santa) as they deliver gifts throughout the neighbourhood. These vague connotations almost seem as if the film was written to try and awkwardly score points on categories decided by this humble blogger. But since the movie outdates my Christmas reviews by thirteen years, I think we'll have to accept that that's not the case.
Now, the less Christmas-spirited elements. Reindeer Games starts in prison, where Rudy's (Ben Affleck's) cellmate is yammering on about the girl he's been writing to who's meeting him when they get out. Rudy makes some wisecracks, but is clearly jealous that he's not got any sweet-loving to meet him on the other side of the gates. The day before their release, in a food fight caused by cockroaches appearing in the food (it's not ever explained how), the cellmate takes a shiv for Rudy like the absolute champ he is. Our protagonist owes his life to the guy, and will surely set the world to rights when he meets his sweet freedom.
Nope, he pretends to be his dead cellmate so he can sleep with the girl.
It's hard to like Affleck's character after that point. It's Christmas you heathen!
Ho-ho-who's in it?
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ It's a harsh reality, but Ben Affleck doesn't shine in this film. Charlize Theron does though. She starts off as a very vanilla character but, as we discover more about the background story, Theron really sells up Ashley's development. It's a controlled performance, not trying to run forward and not being stuck behind.
Gary Sinise is great too. More recently known for his almost 200-episode stint in the CSI franchise, Reindeer Games takes place when Sinise was a key player in Hollywood. His role as Gabriel, the psychotic gun-runner who wants to enter the criminal big leagues, is right on point. In fact, his performance is so good that it distracted me throughout the film.
I'd also like to mention that Danny Trejo shows up in this film making him, after his appearance in Harold & Kumar 3, the first person to feature in back-to-back Christmas reviews. As is traditional of the time, he basically plays the role of Danny Trejo. Vin Diesel was supposed to be in the film too, which maybe would've pushed this up to five stars. Sadly, as far as I'm aware, Diesel is yet to put out a Christmas film. This video is perhaps the closest we'll come to seeing "The Christmases of Riddick".
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ There is a section of the film where we're led to believe that incest is being committed by two of the lead characters. Generally speaking, this is a red flag on the ol' "family fun" section. You wouldn't expect to find incest in something like, say, The Polar Express.
There's also gratuitous amounts of violence (some very graphic), as various characters are stabbed, shot and otherwise eradicated from the Earth. Plus extremely frequent swearing, and the harsh realities of prison in the opening scenes. There's no full-on nudity but Charlize Theron is topless a couple of times and we get some lovely angles of Ben Affleck's butt (or whoever was standing in for him that day) whilst they screw in a motel room (reminder: he's stolen the identity of his dead cellmate). Classy.
Despite all of this, the BBFC deemed the film a 15 for "strong violence and language, and one scene of moderate sex", making it accessible to various members of the family. Probably not a stocking filler, but if your dad or teenage brother caught it on channel five late at night, they'd certainly make it to the end.
★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ Minimal. Effort. Made.
In one scene we hear "Let It Snow" and a few times Ben Affleck is caught whistling a Christmas tune that I can't remember the name of. Don't be fooled though, this is Christmassy only in an attempt to sell it for the 1999 festive season (though it was delayed for re-shoots because test audiences didn't like it).
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
It's not great. You can't help but hate the main character, and that really distracts from the rest of the story. Frankly, in the end, you don't want anyone to come out of it having won. That said, the action is entertaining in that way that action films can be, and the Christmas Eve Santa heist is a concept I'd love to see a better film take on.
I said it in the cover, but this film really does have a lot of twists. You have to constantly re-evaluate your predictions of what's going to happen next.