John Frankenheimer’s Reindeer Games Is Anything But Boring

One Foggy Christmas Eve

John Frankenheimer is back in the saddle, roping in more excitement than the screen can hold. Reindeer Games is not great Frankenheimer. It is flawed and overly contrived and shot in a series of nostril-pumping close-ups that deprive the cinematic process of all the great things it can reveal for an audience. But it is also rude and rugged and constantly surprising. The man who gave the world such piercing character studies as All Fall Down and Birdman of Alcatraz and such a breathlessly imaginative thriller as The Manchurian Candidate falls short here. But Reindeer Games is still the work of a skilled director who knows how to tell a story and keep you on the edge of your seat. It’s not boring.

The film centers on Rudy (Ben Affleck), a petty criminal serving time in a remote Michigan prison for auto theft, and his cellmate Nick (James Frain), a former employee of an Indian casino who got greedy. Rudy has spent most of his time behind bars listening to Nick read love letters from a dreamy pen pal he’s never met named Ashley, and has become more than a bit fascinated with her himself. Two days before the two inmates are scheduled for parole, Nick is stabbed to death in the prison cafeteria and on a whim, Rudy, upon release, takes one look at Ashley(Charlize Theron) and innocently pretends to be Nick for a roll in the sheets. It’s a Christmas wish that turns out to be the biggest mistake of his life.

Ashley turns out to be one Polaroid saint who is anything but. A glamorous tarantula with an incestuous, wacko brother named Gabriel (Gary Sinise, with Jesus hair and murder in his eyeballs) who plans to use Nick to rob the casino with a gang of murderous gun-running truck drivers, all dressed like Santa Claus. Poor Rudy doesn’t know anything about casinos, but he has to pretend to be Nick to stay alive. It’s no accident that Rudy is short for Rudolf, the red-nosed hero who wasn’t allowed to play in any reindeer games, and the games continue until he can make his escape through the frozen wastes of Michigan, played by the frozen wastes of Canada.

As the plot thickens faster than cranberry sauce, Ashley isn’t who she says she is, Gabriel isn’t really her incestuous brother after all, and the double- and triple-crosses multiply so fast the movie turns preposterous. By the time the screen fills with dead, blood-splattered Santa Clauses and Dean Martin songs, you find yourself wincing instead of laughing. Only a cad would spoil the fun by revealing the twists and turns that keep this violent opus moving from one cliffhanger to the next. But I will tell you that by the time Rudy loses his cynicism (and almost his life), a Norman Rockwell turkey dinner in a Grandma Moses setting never looked so inviting.

I think it’s a mistake to leaven the film’s darker edge with flashes of humor. There is nothing funny about the hole in the ice of humanity into which Mr. Affleck’s character falls, and repeated verses of “The Little Drummer Boy” sung under his breath only make the audience laugh at the film, not with it. Still, he has an easy, lumbering sweetness in this film he’s never shown before. Mr. Sinise is such a good actor he can’t hide his confusion about his own mixed-up role; every time he aims a gun at someone’s brain, he seems to be suppressing a giggle. When they say they don’t make movie stars like they used to, they haven’t seen Ms. Theron in action. She’s Lana Turner mixing a snake venom cocktail, killing you with a smile without a single regard for the value of your life. I love looking at her, but do we have to examine her pores with a magnifying glass? Mr. Frankenheimer’s endless close-ups and two-shots really get in the way.

Although Reindeer Games is not on a par with his great work in the past, it proves Mr. Frankenheimer can still establish characters, set up complex situations and remove the safety caps on life’s wilder fantasies with nimble feet and technical dexterity. Rarely has a Christmas Eve setting looked so terrifying.

An Old-Timer and a Newcomer

On the music front, two exceptional jazz singers are making a joyful noise. Sixty-five-year-old legend Teri Thornton, who just broke records at the Village Vanguard, has just released her first recording in 35 years on the Verve label, and it’s a pleasure to report that on CD and in person, she’s singing better than ever. Despite the long battle with

cancer that has kept her away from a microphone for the past couple of decades, she is in fighting form, the lush, rounded tones fully fleshed, the exemplary phrasing still unique and relaxed and surprising.

I’ll Be Easy to Find is the title of both the CD and of a seldom-heard ballad by Bart Howard that is worth rediscovering. Show tunes, jazz standards and blues dazzle the ears, but the centerpiece is her own composition, “Salty Mama,” the song with which she won the coveted Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocals Competition in 1998. Recorded live, it’s hard-swinging, juicy jazz that deserves the standing ovation you can hear on the CD.

Ms. Thornton pours not only her soul and her heart into her music, but a lifetime of musical savvy as well. And she is fearless, turning the “Lord’s Prayer” into a Brazilian samba with startling panache. Her mother was a choir director, her godmother was an evangelist who attended Juilliard, her father was a Pullman porter. She’s lived a lot, and it’s all in the music. Hopefully, “I’ll Be Easy to Find” is just the first step on the comeback trail of a great singer with a lot to give, still giving it all she’s got.

Newcomer Steven Kowalczyk, at the Firebird Cafe, hails from Boston with a degree in African-American jazz from the University of Massachusetts, but there’s nothing of the college egghead about him. He’s a wildly accomplished blues-pop-jazz performer with a soulful intensity and movie-star sex appeal–soft, breathy, with an intricate sense of rhythm and an impeccable sense of time. He can swing, he can croon, and he scats like Mel Tormé. His own compositions are fresh and unique.

“My Lady Don’t Dare” is a cool, snappy jazz tune in the old Bobby Troup style, while “Mother of Mothers” is a Brazilian free-for-all with a risky scat centerpiece that defies gravity. But he’s got his own spin on standards, too: “You Don’t Know What Love Is” reduces the room to a stunned hush, then he breaks up Cole Porter’s “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To” into short, punctuated, husky-voiced phrases like the valves on a bass trombone. Accompanied by a first-rate trio of Jon Cowherd on piano, Marc Ciprut on guitar and James Genus on bass, Mr. Kowalczyk takes risks and lands on his feet every time. I can’t imagine who his idols are because he sounds completely original. All I can say is he knows more about music than a fellow so young has a right to know. The only thing wedged between Mr. Kowalczyk and stardom is his name, but his talent is so big you’ll remember it, even if you can’t pronounce it.

John Frankenheimer’s Reindeer Games Is Anything But Boring