Runner Runner (15) | Close-Up Film Review

Dir. Brad Furman, US, 2013, 88 mins
Cast:  Ben AffleckJustin TimberlakeGemma Arterton

A brilliant Princeton math student attempts to set free his broke bank account by risking all in an online poker game. After he’s cheated of his last cent, he flies to Costa Rica to sort things out with the owner of that gambling website.

In its two male leads, “Runner Runner” offers a study in contrasts. Timberlake is still obviously excited to be headlining a movie, any kind of movie, and he takes everything he’s doing here with praiseworthy sincerity and interest. He holds the screen, and he loves being on it.

Richie (Timberlake) is a razor-sharp Poker hand who can’t refuse to accept a good deal. He loses everything one night even as his pals watch incredulously. When he reaches gambling haven Costa Rica, he meets the über-smooth, louche and wicked gambling tycoon and villain Ivan (Affleck), who unsurprisingly enough, takes Richie under his wing, and throws wads of dollar bills his way every now and then as rewards.

The film builds up to his meeting with Affleck’s Ivan Block, and director Brad Furman gives this key character a visually outstanding entrance in a steam bath while screenwriters Brian Koppelman and David Levien give block an entertaining, chewy monologue that many other actors might have made a meal of. But Affleck just sits there in the steam bath and talks without inflecting anything and makes it extremely clear that he doesn’t want to be acting in this movie or acting at all. He seems annoyed that he even had to remember his lines.

Affleck has always been a strange case. He’s been in films for 20 years now, and he’s a star, but has any other star been as honestly indifferent as he often seems on screen? His eyes are hooded and unemotional, and his voice is inexpressive, and his body seems inactive even in movement. He has none of the joy or need or skill of an actor, and he never really did. Either he needs to find some energy for this kind of thing, or he should just elegantly step back and direct movies or do something else that interests him more, because his laziness in “Runner Runner” really just won’t do. At the climax of the film, when his character is supposed to look surprised, Affleck merely turns his head slightly and blinks his eyes a couple of times, like an exhausted coquette.

Affleck is at ease in his role and has some good lines. It’s pretty obvious that Timberlake channels more than a few stylistic touches and mannerisms from some of his recent roles. Early on in the movie, Furman shifts focus from Poker to something else. Arterton’s Rebecca seems comfortable with being the eye-candy and is every part the bombshell, a much-needed counterpoint in this casino boogie of a movie, otherwise full of tumbling dice and dirty deals in broad daylight.

One of those rewards is also a chance to sleep with his oomphy and moll, Rebecca (Arterton), whom Richie begins to lustfully eye almost as soon as he becomes a part of Ivan’s Clicquot-swilling clique.

A story like that at the heart of Runner Runner, about a young American gambler who gets sucked way above his head into the illegal doings of a big-time offshore operator, would have found its perfect life as a hard, punchy, black-and-white programmer back in the 1950s. Today, it would have been most feasible as an ostentatious character study done on an operatic scale by a filmmaker like Martin Scorsese or Michael Mann. What’s actually up onscreen in this vaguely determined but flashy melodrama falls into an in-between no-man’s-land that endows it with no distinction whatsoever, a work lacking both style and insight into the netherworld it seeks to make known. Despite an fascinating set-up and Ben Affleck and Justin Timberlake heading the cast, this Fox release holds a losing box-office hand.

Ben Affleck makes for a pretty good jerk, but he can’t pull off outright villainy.

That’s probably the main problem with the crime thriller Runner Runner, a throwback to films like The Firm and The Devil’s Advocate and Wall Street in which hungry, vulnerable hotshots got sucked into alluringly deviant businesses. But Affleck is chummy where he should be shady, dickish where he should be horrible. A bro-compliant version of Gordon Gekko, it turns out, is no Gordon Gekko at all.

As we mentioned above, our hero is Richie Furst (Justin Timberlake), a former Wall Street whiz kid who lost everything in the crash and now toils as a grad student at Princeton, paying for his tuition by working as a freelance affiliate for an online gambling empire run out of Costa Rica by the mysterious Ivan Block (Affleck). When he loses a ton of money one desperate night on what appears to be a rigged game, Richie runs the numbers and jaunts off to Central America to confront Ivan with the proof. The latter, impressed by the kid’s determination, hires him, luring him with promises of six- and seven-figure paydays as far as the eye can see.

Of course, we know Ivan is dirty; we saw him bribing two U.S politicians with hookers before Richie ever got to Costa Rica. So the suspense lies not in wondering what Ivan is up to, but in watching Richie get sucked into this money- and sex-drenched world. But director Brad Furman, who made the solid, similarly old-fashioned thriller The Lincoln Lawyer a couple of years ago, is too methodical, and he pulls back too much here. While we get many scenes of gorgeous women in bikinis and all-night parties featuring fire-breathing dancers and massive carnival masks and whatnot, we never quite lose ourselves in the wickedness. (Michael Mann and Martin Scorsese are the masters of this, but you don’t need to be them to pull it off.) Meanwhile, the film portrays Richie as a bit too savvy to be a self-deluded mark; he’s more a Bud Light guy than a single-malt guy, which in movie speaks means he’s smarter and more down-to-earth than everybody else. When the FBI shows up, in the person of the wisecracking Agent Shavers, Richie’s refusal to help them feels hollow.

Still, it might have all worked if Affleck could muster up the mandatory oily charm to make his character and his world tempting, or if Timberlake made for a more compellingly desperate hero. But the two seem so off that you actively start to re-cast the movie as you watch it. What if Ivan was older, more aloof or Richie a bit dumber, hungrier? Late in the film, when Ivan decries Richie’s “younger generation,” you start to genuinely wonder if the role was written for an older actor. With Affleck, it gets an unintended laugh.

Runner Runner isn’t entirely Terrible

There’s a fairly solid idea in here somewhere, and the script by Brian Koppelman and David Levien who wrote the beloved-by-poker-aficionados gambling thriller Rounders features lots of seemingly smart dialogue about “non-weighted game theory” and “short-term variants.” (I say “seemingly,” because, being neither a poker brute nor a statistician, I’m too stupid to tell whether it’s actually smart.) But maybe the movie is too smart for its own good. At one point, we see Ivan feeding whole raw chickens to his pet crocodiles. We know the crocodiles will come into play later in the film; I won’t say what actually happens, but what does come to light is somehow both predictable and limp. You want the movie to get outrageous, but it’s too dignified to go there. Much like its central villain, it can’t decide what it wants to be.

A promising plot like this could have offered you a full course, yet what you’re served is diet fare at best. As an exercise in style, “Runner Runner” has its moments, especially early on, but some of Affleck’s inactivity seems to infect the film itself after a while. Inventive framing and shot selection give way finally to let’s-get-this-done conversations, filmed in unimaginative shot/reverse-shot style. Recast Ivan Block with any number of actors and “Runner Runner” might have been small-time but diverting fun. With Affleck at its center, the film becomes a deadly study in a poker face with other things on its mind.

What Parents Need To Know

Parents need to know that Runner Runner is a thriller starring Justin Timberlake and Ben Affleck that takes place in the world of online gambling. There are some violent images, such as characters being chased, abducted, and beaten up, as well as a character being fed to crocodiles. Women are scantily clad throughout and treated as sex objects; viewers briefly see a fairly graphic sex tape on a TV screen, and the main character and the female lead kiss passionately in one shot. Language is very strong, with multiple uses of “f–k,” as well as “s–t” and “p—y.” Consumerism is celebrated, with lots of money spent; characters are often seen drinking beer or harder drinks at parties or other celebrations, with no consequences. Timberlake might attract some teen fans to this movie, but word of mouth might just as quickly turn them off.

This is a lazy film that barely goes through the motions. It wallows endlessly by the swimming pool and then gives a automatic frown of pious disapproval. At the end, the credits inform us that Runner Runner is actually executive produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, a man smart enough to grab a piece of the action while keeping his own name at a discreet arm’s length. It’s the suckers on camera who wind up getting stung.