- The Washington Times - Friday, February 25, 2000

''I was never much for the holidays," Ben Affleck confides as Rudy Duncan, the admirably resourceful hero of the diverting new cat-and-mouse thriller "Reindeer Games." Both the first name and the title are integral to a macabre seasonal joke.

While watching Rudy, a convicted car thief, scramble for his life, screenwriter Ehren Kruger and director John Frankenheimer play some cleverly coldblooded tricks on Christmas symbols and sentiments.

For example, Rudy's account of one very dodgy Christmas, soon after he's paroled, begins with a shocking pictorial tease from the filmmakers. Mr. Frankenheimer displays several sprawling corpses in Santa Claus costumes.

In due time, Rudy clarifies this grim spectacle and even finds himself so content while savoring Christmas morning that he becomes a delightful convert to yuletide benevolence and serenity.

The dodgiest elements in Mr. Kruger's system of deception tend to be front-loaded, when it's necessary to establish Rudy as a sympathetic con nearing the end of his stretch.

Dana Stubblefield of the Redskins is recruited for some of the preliminary misdirection, cast as a ferocious inmate who may have it in for the hero. (If local fans are disappointed in his play next season, they can blame Mr. Frankenheimer, who believes a thriving career in oversize roles awaits Mr. Stubblefield and plans to encourage his moonlighting as an actor.)

The movie zigs and zags with consistent wit and gusto once a dubious prison riot has been staged and Rudy is on the outside, unable to resist temptation in the supremely seductive form of Charlize Theron. Under the impression that he has lucked into a sweetheart named Ashley, Rudy comes to a rude awakening in the aftermath of romantic bliss.

Ashley's heavenly aspects prove a bit disillusioning. She comes with some scary baggage: a gang of thugs bossed by Gary Sinise as Gabriel, a trucker who plans a Christmas Eve armed robbery of a casino located on an Indian reservation in northern Michigan. He believes Rudy possesses inside dope that will facilitate the crime.

Rudy isn't the only character subject to grave misconceptions, but being at the mercy of Gabriel and his menacing confederates Clarence Williams III, Danny Trejo and Donal Logue he desperately struggles to play along. The movie is so smartly and sharply attuned to Rudy's dilemma that it proves consistently enjoyable watching Mr. Affleck evade speedy execution by any means handy, mainly repeated lies and escape attempts.

Rather like the hero of a traditional serial, he's put to the test in order to survive from episode to episode.

Rudy is the most winning role of Mr. Affleck's still newly minted career. What with one torture and another, from Miss Theron's favors to Mr. Sinise's slings and arrows, Rudy definitely earns his deliverance.

Miss Theron's sex appeal first boiled over when she was cast as the femme fatale of John Herzfeld's droll crime fable "2 Days in the Valley."

Mr. Sinise dominates a formidable rogues' gallery, a kind of working-class variation on the "Maltese Falcon" cutthroats, whose ruthlessness was always leavened by amusing flashes of sarcasm and sagacity.

Mr. Frankenheimer has rediscovered how to identify and champion the good guys ensnared in bad company.

THREEE OUT OF FOUR STARS

TITLE: "Reindeer Games"

RATING: R (Frequent profanity and sexual candor; occasional graphic violence with gruesome illustrative details; occasional comic vulgarity; fleeting nudity and simulated intercourse)

CREDITS: Directed by John Frankenheimer

RUNNING TIME: 99 minutes

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