Friday, December 4, 2020

Merry CrimesMas: Another Film Nerd on Reindeer Games

The old saying is wrong. There aren’t just two things in life that are inevitable - there are three: death, taxes and the inevitable bullshit that surfaces on film twitter in the leadup to December 25.

Someone will point out Die Hard is a Christmas movie (because apparently that was in doubt?), someone will come to the conclusion that Love, Actually is problematic, actually and there’ll be the inevitable argument about what the best Christmas movies are.

More often than not, film twitter will round up the usual suspects: there’ll be gifs of Michael Caine dancing courtesy of The Muppet Christmas Carol, there’ll be due credit paid to Joe Dante’s Gremlins along with references to outliers like The Ice Harvest, Mixed Nuts (god help me. Yes, it’s a Christmas movie, but if you think it’s the best? Please in the name of all that is holy seek out more Christmas films), and obligatory references to the shitter being full (God bless you, pre-breakdown Randy Quaid).

For a festive holiday, the debate is kinda reminiscent of a completely different holiday: Groundhog Day.

It’s the same arguments, the same posturing and the same festive white noise.

And, given this year some bright spark discovered the shocking truth that Catherine O’Hara was the mother in Home Alone we’re no doubt inching inevitably closer to Christmas movie thinkpieces revealing the shocking truth that that the bloke in Love, Actually was the bad guy in Die Hard, that the son in Christmas Vacation is one of the leads in The Big Bang Theory, Santa from The Christmas Chronicles was once an action star or, perhaps most shockingly of all, that Kirk Cameron (of Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas) was once actually considered to be famous.

But, until those thinkpieces are willed into existence, we are left with the same old same old.

Which leads me to my contribution to the annual white noise. A little campaign I call #TeamPowWowSafe looking at one of the few films that could still be considered an underrated Christmas gem - John Frankenheimer’s Reindeer Games.

When it was released in 2000, it was greeted with overall disdain: Roger Ebert complained that too much of the film was taken up with characters explaining the plot to other characters, the AV Club’s Nathan Rabin described it as a thriller “with all the plot twists, realism and fully developed characters of an episode of ‘Scooby Doo’”, and Reelviews James Berardinelli called it “an inept blend of routine action sequences, howlingly bad dialogue and standard thriller plot elements”.

Yes, as far as Christmas movies go, critics handed the cast and crew of Reindeer Games their entire body weight in coal in return for the efforts.

For me, I had a completely different experience… and that, to this day, makes me think that virtually the entire critical community somewhat missed the point (especially given the likes of Ebert claimed that it seemed to be taking itself seriously to the point where it couldn’t be considered self-parody).

I’d heard all the reviews (or at least a fair portion of them) and only went in because it was the most interesting (or should I say least dull) thing on at the time.

And sure, at the start I was kinda rolling my eyes.

Ben Affleck
as a hardened con deliver semi-tough noir dialogue is not an easy thing to get used to, for starters.

But then something happened. A cinematic Christmas miracle, if you will.

Isaac Hayes showed up.

The Isaac Hayes.

At the time, he was most well-known by my generation as the voice of Chef from South Park… but even I was well-versed enough to recognize him as the bad motherfucker that sang the theme to Shaft.

Not ony did Isaac Hayes show up. But… he started a prison riot.

And… he started a prison riot because there were “monsters in the gelatin” (translated for those who haven’t seen the flick, said monsters were cockroaches, and said gelatin was the jelly/jello served to inmates for their desert).

It was a surreal, weirdly hilarious moment.

I couldn’t help but start laughing.

And I didn’t stop for the rest of the film.

Contrivance after contrivance, plot twist after plot twist, ludicrous piece of exposition after ludicrous piece of exposition, I was in hysterics. And I was having a blast.

At first, I assumed this was a ‘so bad it’s good’ type of movie, but as the years have passed and I’ve watched the film numerous times (at least into the double digits), I realize that it knows exactly wants to be. And it succeeds brilliantly.

In the same way that the Nicolas Cage golden era of action films that started with The Rock and ended with Gone in 60 Seconds were action films amped up to 11 - with a grace and ease that would only be matched later by the Fast and Furious series - Reindeer Games is neo-noir ramped up to 11: aware of its own silliness and looking to outdo the level of lunacy with each new twist.

For the uninitiated, I’ll do my best to summarise the plot: Rudy (Ben Affleck) and Nick (James Frain) are cellmates - both of whom are due to leave prison on the same day, just before Christmas. Rudy just wants to get home to his family, while Nick just wants to get off with Ashlee - a gorgeous pen-pal he’s been writing while imprisoned. And when said pen-pal is played by Charlize Theron, could you really blame him?

Unfortunately for Nick, he gets killed in the prison riot that started when Chef from South Park found monsters in his gelatin.

So, when Rudy - heartbroken at the loss of his dear pal - leaves prison, he does the only thing a man in his position would do: pretend to be his dead cellmate so that he can fuck Charlize Theron.

And for a while, things go great. They shack up in a motel room and bone each other’s brains out.

But then, someone else enters the mix… a far from angelic Gabriel (played by Gary Sinise with a mullet that has to be seen to be believed) shows up to poop on the party.

See, Gabriel is Ashley’s brother. And he’s been reading Nick’s letters to Ashley, and taking an especially keen interest in how Nick used to work at the Tomahawk Casino. Cos Gabriel wants to rob the Tomahawk, and believes Nick’s his ticket in.

But, for those who are having trouble keeping up, there’s one small fly in the ointment. Nick’s dead. And Rudy’s pretending to be Nick. Only Ashley and Gabriel don’t realize Rudy’s Rudy. They think Rudy’s Nick. And Rudy’s worried that if Ashley and Gabriel work out that Nick’s not really Nick, he (Rudy) may end up like the Christmas turkey in that he’s well and truly stuffed.

I know… if I had a dollar for every time that happened to me, I’d be rich too..

And yes, this is just the setup. Things get weirder from there - with an increasingly brilliant array of character actors showing up to strut their stuff: whether it’s a to-this-day inexplicable cameo from Ashton Kutcher, Dennis Farina doing that Farina thing he does so well or Danny Trejo playing a convict-turned-wannabe-entrepreneur, you’ll find a wealth of fun people doing fun things here.

Weirdly, the only person who doesn’t seem in on the joke is Theron - who plays it comparatively straight. Sure, when you’re starring alongside Gary Sinise and his luscious locks, it’s clear someone else is doing the lion’s share of scenery chewing. But that doesn’t mean there wouldn’t be enough for you to chow down on if you felt so inclined. Sadly, she’s not inclined. Everyone else, though, seems to be having a blast.

Having said all that, my message is clear. If you’re the sort of person who can appreciate the sheer lunacy of something played as dead straight as John Malkovich holding a gun to a toy bunny’s head, you’ll find plenty to enjoy here. You either get the joke or you don’t. And if you do, it’ll be a cinematic Christmas experience to treasure.

@Anotherfilmnerd's earliest cinematic memory was seeing Don Johnson throw up all over a suspect in John Frankenheimer's Dead Bang. Ever since, he's devoted his life to searching out cinema that's weird, wonderful and features vomit in the most unlikely of places. 

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