Slay bells ring

Movie: Reindeer Games

Our Rating: 4.50

Good crime movies are hard to come by. So when you come across one that's even fairly decent, you're inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt and let it slide on the fine points.

You'll feel that way about "Reindeer Games," a nifty little excursion into felonious behavior that has a lot of annoying edges.

Take for example the character of Gabriel (Gary Sinise), a truck driver with a heart of mold who plans a Christmas Eve casino heist. Gabriel is a fine villain, but Sinise plays him with so much abandon that he's very nearly nonthreatening. Gabriel's primary victim (in this caper, nearly everyone's victimized to some degree) is Jack Bangs, who as played by Dennis Farina is similarly waaaaay over the top. He's almost comic relief.

Ehren Kruger's script tosses them all around as if they were on a Bad Ship Lollipop, rarely giving us viewers enough pause to figure out which side we ought to be rooting for. Ah, but in crime movies, sometimes all that excess works. And in the careful hands of John Frankenheimer, you can almost feel yourself being drawn in, tricked and tossed out of every plot device. It's flawed, but gosh it's fun.

Kruger, who gave us a nice study in paranoia in Arlington Road, here blesses us with two nearly unforgettable characters. First, there's Ashley (Charlize Theron), a vamp who's twisting everyone's libido but whose own heart is harder than Chinese arithmetic. Theron plays Ashley fast and loose, and it's grand to watch.

Rudy Duncan (Ben Affleck), a fresh-out-of-prison car thief who's tricked into leading the robbery, is our hero -- or at least the guy through whose eyes we watch the convoluted caper unfold. He's a nice blend of bland and bad, with just enough antihero in him to keep us worried.

Riding herd over all these twisty doings is the 70-year-old Frankenheimer, directing with the subversive verve that made him a role model in the 1960s ("The Manchurian Candidate," "Birdman of Alcatraz") before he fell out of Hollywood favor in the 1970s and 1980s by helming some of the worst movies you never saw ("99 44/100% Dead," "Prophecy"). His new movie doesn't cover much ground, but he makes the most of it; nobody ever coaxed as much suspense from a simple motel parking lot as he does here.

Kruger, who also penned "Scream 3," deserves to move out of sequels and up to the A-list of Hollywood writers with this feature. His character interplay and cohesive sense of detail are invigorating and sure.

Best of all, you'll find yourself getting in touch with your inner criminal as you watch these future corpses realize their destinies. That, after all, is the great pleasure of crime fiction, whether it's on the screen or in books. Give yourself up to Frankenheimer's masterful meticulousness and Kruger's enthusiasm. This job pays off big.


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