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This extended version of the Ben Affleck/Charlize Theron thriller may be better than the original, but as a Blu-ray release, it misses the mark....
Lionsgate / 124 Minutes / 2000 / Unrated / Street Date: March 6, 2012
As the financial investments put into film production became higher over the course of the last few decades, the "preview process" was born. A proposed theatrical cut for a new film would be shown to an audience at no charge, then the viewers would then be obligated to fill out a questionnaire concerning their impressions of the film, essentially to suggest improvements. These cards would then be analyzed and the film fine-tuned to ensure the maximum return on investment. This process can probably be credited - perhaps I should say, "blamed" - for the "happy ending syndrome" that runs rampant in American cinema these days.
It also tends to distort the filmmaker's vision, and such was the case with director John Frankenheimer's most recent effort, Reindeer Games. He very much regretted having to tame his hard-edged caper film for theatrical audiences, but was subsequently delighted when the opportunity was offered to present his original cut - fourteen minutes longer than the theatrical release - as Reindeer Games: The Director's Cut, now available on BD.
Rudy Duncan (Ben Affleck) is serving time for car theft in a bleak Michigan prison. His cellmate and friend is Nick Cassidy (James Frain), who's been carrying on an extended correspondence with the delicious Ashley (Charlize Theron). Rudy can't help but stare longingly at the array of photos Ashley sent Nick and that he dutifully hung on the wall next to his bunk. Both Rudy and Nick have only three days left of their sentences, but Rudy has a problem. A very large and angry prisoner wants to kill him. And when Nick gets in the way of the brute as he comes at Rudy during a lunchroom riot, it's Nick, not Rudy, who finds a shiv between his ribs. Nick dies in Rudy's arms. So we're not surprised when Rudy, seeing Ashley standing sad and confused in the Michigan snow waiting for Nick to walk through the prison gate, walks up to her and introduces himself as Nick.
After a brief meal at a truck stop, the two of them are writhing in a motel bed, her passion fired by months of verbal foreplay, his by years of loneliness. Rudy isn't quite ready to admit it to himself quite yet, but as Nick read Ashley's letters to him in their cell, he fell for this woman. The honeymoon is short-lived. Ashley's vicious brother, Gabriel (Gary Sinise), and his three henchmen invade their room. It seems that in his letters to Ashley, Nick had revealed that he'd been a security guard at a local Indian reservation casino. Gabriel wants to rob the casino and Rudy as Nick is given an unpleasant choice: help or die.
Thus begins a game of wits and brutality. Rudy does his damnedest to outsmart the thugs as he's shackled, beaten, bloodied, and used as a dartboard. We know the heist is attempted, and we know that people died. Frankenheimer starts the film with images that give all that away. But how and who aren't clear until the film unfolds. Along the way, what we suspect may be a serious plot hole turns out to be something else entirely, and the climax of the show did catch me off-guard. I always enjoy credible, unexpected plot twists. But much of the film is occupied with abusing Rudy as Nick, or one character explaining his or her behavior to another, and that becomes a bit repetitious.
Screenwriter Ehren Kruger manages to insert humor without dulling the film's edginess. Sinise's believable take on Gabriel compensates for his character's dim-wittedness with raw viciousness. Affleck conveys a street-smart ability to outwit while he's outnumbered. And Charlize Theron is given the most rewarding part, one that allows her the widest range.