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John Frankenheimer guns for the plot holes in "Reindeer Games"

By Ray Pride

FEBRUARY 28, 2000:  Drop a dead Santa to the snow in a pool of his own blood, attention will be paid.

While written by 28-year-old Ehren Kruger ("Arlington Road," "Scream 3"), the movie is John Frankenheimer's. The 70-year-old director's 35th major feature, "Reindeer Games" sounds like a little boy's version of a 1950s Phil Karlson robbery caper like "Five Against the House." But it's Frankenheimer's remarkable camerawork and cutting that elevates this often absurd, twist-riddled heist caper. (It's a long road from live television to Miramax's Dimension Films.) What would have easily been a genre bungle in lesser hands is, instead, a steely, nasty, twisty thing under the firm guidance of the fifty-year veteran (whose last feature was the extravagant existential posturing of "Ronin").

It's even easy to take Ben Affleck as the ex-con who makes the mistake of taking on a dead cellmate's identity for a weekend of hot sex with Charlize Theron. Affleck's latte-and-cookies presence telegraphs the naiveté of a character who's an ex-con yet still can get shilled into the robbery of an Indian-run casino.

The many turns and reversals at times threaten to make the story unhinged, if not delirious, but the robust Frankenheimer says firmly, "The subtext was so important. You can't really write about this stuff without tipping the movie, but we had to be sure what everybody knew in every scene and never allow yourself to be dishonest with the audience. Everything had to make sense in the end. I hope we anticipated and answered any questions anyone might have."

Is it a commentary on action thrillers, a put-on? "I didn't try to send anything up because I'm not good at that. But I do think that there is some humor in this movie. To me, it's not an action movie. I would describe it as a character-driven thriller. That's what I set out to make. 'Ronin' had so much more action in it that this. This is..." He thinks for a second, his eyes light up. "A suspense thriller. That's what it is."

Frankenheimer's exquisitely composed shots, lit in a desaturated, almost black-and-white range of colors, suggest that like the kind of person who would read a film script and see it play out in images as the words spill past. "My best movies, it's kind of like before I even start them, I can roughly seem them projected on this screen in my mind. Not shot for shot, but kind of a general idea of it. This was one of those movies. This is a medium of images. As you're reading certain scenes, even for the first time, certain images do -- at least to me -- come to mind. I try and plan a great deal before I get to the set. I pretty well know after rehearsal and working with my storyboard artist what this movie is going to look like. We pre-block a lot of scenes in rehearsal and I have a pretty darn good idea of how I'm going to photograph those."

While more about character than "Ronin," there are still remarkable images of his actors being flung across the wide screen here. Does he have a theory as to why violence is so much fun to watch? "I think the nature of the human being is to be challenged, to be pushed to the limits. I think that sometimes it's better to look at this vicariously than to have to do it! You'll get more satisfaction watching someone else do it, going back to the gladiators, when you could watch and not fight the lions yourself. And it truly works when you're connected to the character, emotionally invested. In 'Ronin,' you care about who's in the car. Then, when you're directing, you have to make that as realistic as you can."

Is there any kind of daily fear left after fifty years? "Well, Stanley Kubrick said it best, he said the hardest thing in the world in the morning is to get out of the car. What you say to the crew to get it going. I don't have that feeling of panic I had when I was younger. I know, quite honestly, that no matter how bad the situation is, or what kind of problem there is, I'm going to find a way to get out of it. It may not be perfect, but we're gonna get out. We're gonna come to the end of it. That doesn't make me overconfident, but it does take away a lot of the fear factor. There's anxiety, there's apprehension about whether it's being done the right way. There are hundreds of decisions a director has to make every day and it takes a kind of self-confidence to be able to make those decisions and to make them with some kind of equanimity. It's still difficult." With three pictures left on his Miramax contract, he adds, "I hope it always will be."

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