dir. Brad Furman
Release Date: Oct 04, 13
To whom does Runner Runner appeal? That’s not entirely a rhetorical question. For some inexplicable reason, films about the intrigue of high-stakes poker play are still getting made, despite the best possible one having already come out back in 1973 and the fact that, to the best of this reviewer’s knowledge, the World Series of Poker no longer has the luster or social cachet it did the better part of a decade ago. And now, in the pantheon of movies you’ll be able to watch, shrug at and promptly forget as you go about your day, here is a film by the writing duo of Brian Koppelman and David Levien (Rounders, a far superior film on the topic) about a college-aged genius who spends 90 minutes making horrible decisions and a villain who was clearly so much fun to write that he doesn’t actually do that many villainous things.
Richie Furst (Justin Timberlake) is struggling to make ends meet at Princeton long enough to finish graduate school, after being one of the many casualties of the 2007 banking collapse. He acts as a liaison for online gambling to the school, which gets him a stern lecture from the dean and puts him in a tight spot. Richie decides to fix this by investing all $17,000 or so of his life savings into a high-stakes, four-table game that ends in him being beaten with such perfect strategy that nothing short of a manipulative cheat could explain it. He brings this to the attention of Ivan Block (Ben Affleck), who runs one of the world’s biggest online sites from Costa Rica and takes a liking to Richie. Of course, the gambling kingpin turns out to not be living on the up and up (imagine that!) and Richie finds himself in over his head.
To distract audiences from how perfunctory most of the film feels, there are lots of subplots. Richie’s friends start to find things wrong with the site’s code, at their peril; Richie begins a quasi-steamy relationship with Rebecca (Gemma Arterton), Ivan’s longtime partner; Agent Shavers (Anthony Mackie) abducts Richie and attempts to turn him into a double agent for the FBI, an attempt that goes south when Richie mostly just ignores him for the majority of the film and Shavers does little to counter him. Timberlake and Affleck both have natural charisma to burn, but that’s the problem with Runner Runner: the film depends on their innate appeal without giving them much to sink their teeth into.
Affleck fluctuates between moments of quality scenery-chewing in the Malkovich-in-Rounders tradition and phoned-in apathy, but when the third act rolls around and the film remembers that the hyper-suave Block is in fact the villain, he descends into mustache-twirling clichés far too quickly. He gets off easier than Timberlake, though. For all the film’s insistence that Richie has a true knack for high-stakes cards (and high-stakes living, am I right?) and the shadowy world of organized gambling, he spends the whole of Runner Runner making increasingly awful decisions, repeatedly entrusting his whole game to clearly shady people and doing things like leaving his card-addict father alone for long periods of time. Right up through the laughably bad final twist, which transfers all of Richie’s idiocy into Ivan, Runner Runner doesn’t seem that interested in the cards, or its exotic locales, or the battle of wits between caricatures, or really much of anything. It’s just kind of…there.