In Black Snow, the Deadshirt crew takes a look at some darker entries in the yuletide cinematic canon.
When I think of cynical Christmas films, two films generally come to mind: The 1996 Arnold Schwarzenegger family flick Jingle All the Way and the criminally underrated 2000 Christmas neo-noir Reindeer Games. The two films are comparable in that they’re critically reviled box office flops that have achieved a pseudo-cult status within certain audiences. In the case of Reindeer Games, director John Frankenheimer was forced to re-edit after his film failed several test screenings. The movie was even pushed back to a February release instead of December as intended. But while Reindeer Games has its faults, I’d argue it’s worthy of inclusion as a satisfying holiday classic.
Reindeer Games is both a Christmas morality tale and a giant middle finger to sappy Christmas movies like It’s a Wonderful Life. The film’s central character, Rudy Duncan (as in Rudolph, as in a certain red-nosed reindeer), is a two-bit car thief who hates Christmas. Rudy continues Ben Affleck’s tradition of playing characters you want to punch in the face for being too smarmy. Rudy is our plucky narrator, telling the story of the film after it has presumably ended a la Sunset Boulevard. While in jail, Rudy befriends a man named Nick (Gotham’s James Frain) who is waiting for a girl on the outside. Rudy begins to fall for this girl as well due to Nick’s constant swooning. Lucky for him, Nick gets stabbed to death (or so it would seem), and Rudy impersonates Nick to get close to his paramour, Ashley (a pre-Monster Charlize Theron). The prison riot scene where Nick gets “stabbed” is the first real indication you’re watching something special: an inmate (Isaac Hayes!) yells about “monsters in the gelatin” after seeing a cockroach encased within his nasty Jell-O, unleashing a food fight that turns into a prison riot, which turns into one of Rudy’s enemies killing Nick, or so we’re told. It’s an image inexplicably burned in my brain as being both hilarious and terrifying, akin to the scene in Barton Fink where John Goodman runs down a hallway screaming about the “life of the mind.”
As Rudy gets to know Ashley while acting as “Nick,” we get another swerve. You see, “Nick” thought he was duping Ashley to work through his grief at losing his best friend, but Ashley was the one duping the original Nick into helping her brother Gabriel (Gary Sinise) pull off a heist. Reindeer Games is full of fake names and double crosses: not only does Rudy impersonate Nick, he also puts on a disguise later in the film, too. Later, it’s revealed that Ashley is really Millie, and Gabriel is not her brother, but actually her boyfriend. She eventually even betrays him and reveals that her lover Nick is still alive and both of them were in cahoots to get Rudy to help them pull off the heist. It’s a pretty intricate plot that’s maybe a little too ridiculous, but it somehow still works.
Reindeer Games hinges on a heist that Gabriel and his goons are planning against a failing casino. Sinise’s Gabriel and his crew, by the way, are the best part of the film. Sinise has always been great at playing scumbags, and Gabriel is immediately a dangerous figure from his very first appearance on screen. There’s a great scene where Rudy tries to escape from an early heist planning session (look out for a young Ashton Kutcher) and nearly dies while trying to save Ashley when she slips under a frozen pond. An innocent witness offers his assistance before noticing the men are armed, which arouses suspicion. When Gabriel immediately goes after the man to kill him, it’s legitimately terrifying and raises the stakes for Rudy. Gabriel’s crew is basically a who’s who of action stars, including the likes of Danny Trejo, Donal Logue (another Gotham connection for you), and Clarence Williams III. The movie also has a great Dennis Farina role as the manager of the failing casino, who — in one truly amazing bit of payoff — unlocks a gun closet and kills most of the crew except Rudy, Gabriel and Ashley.
There’s something really charming about the inventive nature of the character deaths in Reindeer Games. In particular, Williams’s character is killed by Rudy using a pistol full of vodka and a lighter to set him on fire. Nick, the real Nick, gets the best death, as he is pinned to the back of an eighteen-wheeler with a car and then is sent packing over a cliff where the truck, of course, explodes. In the end, Rudy is left alive with all the money and ends up giving it all away to poor families by putting stacks in their mailboxes on Christmas morning, still dressed as Santa. He then joins his family for the holidays and finally has his glass of hot chocolate and pecan fuckin’ pie.
Reindeer Games isn’t the greatest film ever made, but it has some fun characters, some clever action and maybe even a nice message about the nature of consumerism. It’s a solid noir, a tight heist film, and an imminently watchable Christmas flick all rolled into one.
Keep checking back throughout December for more Black Snow!