The films that make their way into this column usually come one of two ways ‐ either it’s a new release that I’m fond of, or it’s an equally likable older title themed somehow to the present (ie the director or actor has a new film hitting theaters). Sometimes though other forces are at work.
John Frankenheimer’s Reindeer Games is despised by many and beloved by few, and I’m a proud member of the latter camp. Sure sure, screenwriter Ehren Kruger wears his Shane Black envy on his sleeve, but it’s a fun, sexy little thriller all the same. It’s been on my list as a possible contender for Commentary Commentary, and the impending holiday has seen it become a topic on Twitter too ‐ albeit mostly from a certain Australian film nerd ‐ so I decided now was as good a time as any to give it a listen.
Keep reading to see what I heard on the Reindeer Games (director’s cut) commentary.
Reindeer Games (2000)
Commentators: John Frankenheimer (director)
1. Test screenings resulted in audience feedback that was “not bad, but not what the producers had expected,” and it led to immediate pressure on Frankenheimer to cut the film. The distributors believed the issue was entirely due to length. “In retrospect, I should not have cut the movie.” He believes the theatrical release lost a lot of its edge.
2. The early prison-set scenes are to make viewers believe that Rudy Duncan (Ben Affleck) is a convict. “It’s important to remember that he’s not a hardened serial killer,” Frankenheimer says, wanting to make it clear that Rudy is simply a car thief.
3. Dana Stubblefield, defensive tackle for the Washington Redskins (as of 2000), is in the movie because Frankenheimer needed a character who was terrifying. “The casting people kept showing me actors that were supposed to terrify me, but none of them did,” he says. This led him to suggest Stubblefield who he had seen play on television.
4. The moment that comes in most commentaries comes at the 6:00 minute mark ‐ except it really doesn’t. Instead of saying that people shouldn’t be listening to the commentary before watching the actual movie, Frankenheimer seems to believe somebody might… so he avoids revealing a specific spoiler.
5. He is not a fan of the attempt at “humor” when Rudy makes a crack about the Alamo’s (Stubblefield) weight. It was added for the theatrical release.
6. Isaac Hayes received a standing ovation from the extras after finishing his last scene in the film.
7. The riot scene includes a moment where the Alamo attacks Rudy, but Stubblefield slipped and actually struck Affleck ‐ knocking him out and shutting down production for four days. “Luckily he was all right.”
8. The moment where Rudy gets off the bus is the most important moment in the movie, “because if he didn’t get off the bus we would not have a movie.”
9. He was “very unhappy” with the diner scene between Rudy and Ashley (Charlize Theron) because “the lighting should have been more flattering to Charlize.” He also blames himself and the cameraman as “visually we let her down.”
10. Frankenheimer thinks the post-coital cuddling works better when paired with the longer sex scene in the director’s cut.
11. He and screenwriter Ehren Kruger “went to such pains to explain every event so that they would not be accused of not being logical.”
12. Re-shoots inspired by audience reactions at test screenings took more time than planned and left them unable to open during the holiday season. Frankenheimer regrets that decision and would have rather skipped the re-shoots so they could have opened in December. “We missed our optimum time to play the movie.”
13. He’s heard from multiple fans how much they love the film, “and I felt like saying to so many people that said that well where were you when it came out? Of course that’s a pointless question to ask.”
14. Frankenheimer is proud of several of the films practical effects ‐ car scenes, interiors/exteriors ‐ but he acknowledges the new, expensive computer effects that are available now. “In my next movie,” he says, “I’m going to take advantage of some of the advanced technology.” Sadly, Reindeer Games was his final feature film.
15. He’s a strong advocate for casting extras who actually do what their characters do in real life. “Everything that you can do to make your job easier as a director, you should do.”
16. A brief parking lot scene prompts him to acknowledge that it’s his “homage to Ronin.” He says he just enjoys doing stuff with cars.
17. The scene where Rudy and Ashley fall through the ice was filmed in a field. They dug a hole, filled it with warm water, and added plastic “ice” over it. The underwater scenes were filmed in a tank. Frankenheimer says it’s preferable to the way he did it on 1990’s The Fourth War in which he actually dropped Roy Scheider and Jurgen Prochnow into icy water.
18. The intention was to setup throughout the entire movie that Merlin (Clarence Williams III) was a chain smoker, but Frankenheimer worries that because of edits the character’s fiery demise might seem arbitrary to viewers.
19. They shot a version where Jack Bangs (Dennis Farina) lives, but he realized it wouldn’t have made sense because “it would have been wrong for them to leave him alive because he would have been a witness to everything.”
20. They cast a relative unknown (James Frain) in the role of Nick Cassidy because they didn’t want viewers being suspicious as to why a well-known American actor would take on a character who dies fifteen minutes into the film. Frankenheimer felt audiences would know there was more going on ‐ ie that he would be returning in a third act twist ‐ if he was a recognizable face.
21. Affleck took lessons on how to hot-wire a car from a professional auto thief.
Best in Context-Free Commentary
- “I feel that the preview process hurt this movie.”
- “Those buildings were all put in by the computer.”
- “I usually don’t like characters talking to themselves.”
- “We had an NC-17 version, but we couldn’t put that on this videodisc and still release it with an R.”
- “The hardest kind of scene to do is when everyone’s just sitting at a table.”
- “I just wanted the designer here to design the ugliest hotel room possible.”
- “It’s terribly important to let the audience know that [Gary] Sinise is one hell of a good dart player.”
- “I wonder how a picture like Casablanca could have ever survived the preview process.”
- “I never saw that coming when I read the script.”
Look, Reindeer Games has its issues and it’s impossible not to see it as Shane Black-lite, but that doesn’t make it any less entertaining. The cast is having fun, the script is twisty, and it’s just a wonderfully ridiculous little crime thriller. Frankenheimer’s commentary track is an apparent edit of two commentaries ‐ most likely an original track and a “new” one for the director’s cut ‐ and it’s clear each time it shifts between them, but it stays focused. The bigger issue with him is that he’s just not a very engaging or exciting speaker. Still, Frankenheimer was a cinema legend, and when the director or The Manchurian Candidate, The Train, Seconds, Black Sunday, Ronin, and dozens more speaks it’s most assuredly worth a listen.