Runner Runner (2013) / Drama-Thriller
MPAA Rated: R for language and some sexual content
Running Time: 91 min.
Cast: Justin Timberlake, Ben Affleck, Gemma Arterton, Anthony Mackie, John Heard
Director: Brad Furman
Screenplay: Brian Koppelman, David Levien
Review published October 8, 2013
Justin Timberlake (Trouble with the Curve, In Time) stars as Princeton graduate student Richie Furst, who earns his way through college by being a gambling website affiliate, recruiting new suckers for online games of chance for money, something that gets him in trouble with the powers that be at the school, banning him from promoting the site. To make up the rest of his tuition, Richie puts all of his money on the line at that very site in an online poker tournament, only to lose it all in several consecutive improbable losing games against the 'house' opponent who seems to know just when to raise or fold.
The odds of such an event occurring defy any rationale, such that Richie runs the data and heads to the website's home base in Costa Rica in order to confront the multi-millionaire kingpin of the site, Ivan Block (Affleck, Argo), with mathematical proof that there's something wrong. Block claims he had no knowledge, but likes Richie's verve, offering him a job in his organization. Richie looks like he'll be sitting pretty until he's approached by a tenacious FBI agent named Shavers (Mackie, Gangster Squad) looking to take Block down.
Lincoln Lawyer's Brad Furman directs this script by Brian Koppelman and David Levien, who are revisiting familiar territory as the screenwriters for the 1998 poker film Rounders, along with the similarly gambling-centric Ocean's Thirteen. With the exception of the internet tie-in, this is a storyline that feels like it would have been right at home in the theaters decades ago, with its plotline some might think similar to such fare as Wall Street, The Devil's Advocate, or Affleck's Boiler Room. Unlike the professionals showcased within the movie itself, this is a screenplay that shows off all of its tells to the audience long before they happen on the screen. A scene of Ivan feeding crocodiles serves as the 'tell' that someone's going down with them at some point in the future. Establishing Richie's father (Heard, Justice League: The New Frontier) as another gambling addict is a tell that he's going to get into trouble that is going to compromise Richie's freedom of will.
While Timberlake shows he's a force to be reckoned with as an entertainer, he's not quite enough of a presence in the acting department to elevate a film like this, adding little perceptible nuance to a by-the-numbers plotline. Not to mention, at 32 years of age, he seems a bit old for the part of a college student having to resort to online gaming promotion to scrape by. Affleck fares a bit better playing against type as the smooth, Gatsby-type running a potentially illegal gambling operation. Gemma Arterton (Unfinished Song, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters), who plays Block's business associate and main squeeze in an apparently open relationship, supplies the eye candy in a role that requires nothing but. Mackie goes way over the top as the FBI agent willing to go above the law to get his man if he has to; he's a much-needed shot of adrenaline to an otherwise languid storyline.
The direction keeps things running along, but the storyline is too tired, too full of clichés. Even the exotic Costa Rica locale is shot with dark lighting and murky lensing, taking away the one thing that might be the go-to for entertainment when excitement fails to deliver on the screen. An appealing cast is wasted on drab characterizations and a plot that cribs from a half-dozen better well-known movies. When you realize, at the end of the film, that you won't care whether Richie is nabbed for prison or whether he gets away with it, you will know that you had absolutely no rooted interest in his story whatsoever.
The title gets its name from the poker term for catching two running cards in a row (the turn and the river) to make a winning hand. Odds are better at completing this move in a real poker game than in your finding enjoyment in the weak hand that Runner Runner has to bluff its way through with.
©2013 Vince Leo