There are plenty of losers in “Reindeer Games,” a ludicrously
convoluted, laughably hard-boiled heist movie that inspires
incredulity rather than affection.

First there’s John Frankenheimer, a wonder-boy among American
directors during the 1960s with such films as “Birdman of
Alcatraz” and “The Manchurian Candidate” whose career went
into a hideous downward spiral around the middle of the decade,
only to be resuscitated by some fine television work of late.
Recently he’s been trying to work his way back into feature
respectability, but with 1998’s overwrought, underthought
actioner “Ronin” and now this sad caper travesty, he seems
fated to fail. Back to TNT!

Then there’s Ehren Kruger, the present-day wonder-boy writer of
Miramax Films (replacing, it’s said, Kevin Williamson). It was
this script, we’re told, that persuaded the Weinsteins to ink
him for “Scream 3”–but the relative failure of that opus, and
the inevitable catastrophe of this one, with its contrived
plotting and limp dialogue, will probably make him persona non
grata pretty quickly. Make way, Joe Eszterhas!

And what of Ben Affleck? He’s been making bad choices since
“Good Will Hunting” (did anybody see “Forces of Nature”?) and
now, as an ex-con drawn into a plot to rob a casino, he spends
the better part of two hours getting punched out, battered and
otherwise humiliated. Why would he have taken such a role?
Gary Sinise’s acceptance of the villain’s part is equally
inexplicable. Every actor likes to play a snarling baddie, I
suppose, but this character is so over-the-top that he lacks
only a handlebar mustache to twirl in Snidely Whiplash fashion.
Charlize Theron has less to lose, I guess, but she certainly
doesn’t get much of a chance to shine as a femme fatale here.

Miramax Films is a major loser, too. At $30 million “Reindeer
Games” is the most expensive picture its Dimension subsidy has
ever produced, and it’s bound to lay a major egg at the box-
office once word of mouth begins to circulate. It’s a good
thing “Scream 3” is raking in some cash, however undeserved.

But, as always, the big losers in “Reindeer Games” are the
members of the audience, who will wander into the auditorium
looking for a good, old-fashioned time and find themselves
confronted by a movie so bad that the only way one can enjoy
it at all is to assume–against all the evidence on the screen
to the contrary–that it’s intended as a comic sendup of the
action-thriller genre. What’s astonishing is that apparently
none of those involved in this disaster recognized how stupid
the material was and how badly they were dramatizing it. To
keep to the title’s Christmas theme (rendered pointless by the
distributor’s postponement of the piece’s scheduled December
release), “Reindeer Games” is a cinematic lump of coal for
everybody concerned.