RUNNER RUNNER Review

Runner Runner is a film that would seemingly be posed as a well-received thriller-infused drama about the high stakes world of online gaming, the billions of dollars in revenue it provides and the dirty schemes the people who run these sites use to cheat schmoes sitting in their living rooms and betting their life savings. It would seem that way, it certainly has all of the components. Both of its leading actors, Justin Timberlake and Ben Affleck, have careers as hot as they've ever been at the moment and director Brad Furman's previous film was The Lincoln Lawyer, a gritty legal drama with a slick persona at the center that didn't necessarily break any barriers, but played to its strengths and began the career renaissance Matthew McConaughey is now experiencing. So why, with all this potential, all these favorable facets coming into play as well as the added bonus of having a script penned by Brian Koppelman and David Levien, they guys that also wrote Rounders and Ocean's Thirteen, end up being little more than a slog of tedious and boring beats we've seen a million times before with little more to offer than pretty scenery via Costa Rica? While that script is certainly one of the major culprits it seems as much as there are good things working for this film there are just as many if not more negative aspects working against it. I hate to rag on a film that clearly is trying for a certain style and has a clear intent of what it would like to be and the kind of quota it is trying to fill as far as entertainment value goes because Runner Runner clearly knows what it is and how far it can go, but even within these limitations it fails to meet the most basic rules of being a movie and that is first and foremost being entertaining. There is nothing to keep us invested, no characters to sympathize with or plot twists to intrigue us further. From the moment we are introduced to Timberlake's character and presented with his dilemma and then subsequently presented with Affleck's position in the whole thing we can see where things are heading and thus, they do.

Richie Furst (Justin Timberlake) meets his maker in Ivan Block (Ben Affleck).
Personally, I know nothing about poker, blackjack, or any other card games that revolve around gambling and I've never been interested in learning about them cared how to play them because it simply isn't something I believe I'd enjoy and has always presented itself as more trouble than its worth. This is also essentially the issue with the film because instead of investing time and interest in the actual games and strategies these players are dealing with and revolving their lives around it ultimately matters little what the business is, it could have been anything, but it just so happens online gaming is a hot topic at the moment and so why not go with that, right? With that in mind we have Richie Furst (Timberlake) a Princeton grad who is currently trying to complete his masters and is paying his tuition with online gambling winnings. Naturally, this can't go on as the Dean of Princeton himself takes time out of his busy schedule to sit down with Richie and tell him he either gives up the gambling or he won't have a school to pay for. After going one last round to try and gather enough to pay the rest of his tuition off he loses it all, but has good reason to think he was swindled. We are given the impression Richie has lost everything and so what else is there to do but fly to Costa Rica to confront the guy with the power who is the brains behind the site he believes he's been cheated on. Upon arriving in Costa Rica Richie is able to way too easily infiltrate a party in which he meets Ivan Block's (Affleck) right hand woman, Rebecca (Gemma Arterton), who then way too easily grants him access to another party in which Block himself will be present. For God's sake, the mans name is Ivan Block so we know he's destined to be an evil mastermind, but alas he sees a little bit of himself, something of a kindred spirit in Richie and so he decides to bring him in on the business. This can only mean things will start off exceedingly well and quickly take a turn for the worst, but of course Richie is too blind to see that coming.

While director Furman might have had a slightly better film on his hands had he given the tone a harder edge and cast his leading man with someone more capable of pulling off the role the film would still fail to connect or deliver anything past mild B-movie thrills based simply on how generic the screenwriting is. Besides this though, there is an issue here with Timberlake and this coming from someone who completely respects and enjoys his work as a musical artist and performer as well as his personality on Saturday Night Live and late night talk shows. The guy is fine at playing funny, very good even, but when in a role that requires more than lathering on the charm and playing for laughs there are issues in locating genuine human emotion. That isn't to say Timberlake wasn't fine in films like The Social Network or Alpha Dog as both of these films are regarded as quality pictures, but in each of those Timberlake is a supporting player while here he's been asked to step all the way into leading man shoes without what is likely the slightest idea of what he is supposed to project and fill-in that the script doesn't literally say. There is nothing more to his character than what is on the page and as I've said already, that isn't very much. This becomes extremely obvious when wondering what function Gemma Arteron's Rebecca actually serves though. Arterton is a fine enough actress, but she has little to nothing to do here other than function as the girl on the most powerful guy in the rooms shoulder. She comes in and out of the film without much notice and only when the screenwriters require her assistance to move the plot along. There is supposedly a budding relationship happening between her and Richie, but besides a single scene of dancing and them proceeding to get it on in an alley (you have a ton of money! Go to your pent house at least!) there is little between them and thus makes many of the conclusions not necessarily unbelievable, just unjustified (see what I did there). The one bright spot in this mess is Affleck who is hamming it up to his full extent and enjoying every minute of it. We're not supposed to like his Ivan Block, but every time he is not on screen the movie suffers and shows how rote and unspectacular it truly is.

Richie would of course go for the one girl that is off-limits, Rebecca Shafran (Gemma Arterton).
It is hard to understand why Affleck might have said yes to the project as it should have been apparent from the screenplay it was little more than a casual exercise in cheap thrills and bland characters. Maybe it was simply the goal of trying to be about something more timely and topical with the on-line gambling centerpiece and the fact most of the companies that run these sites are off-shore? There is likely ample amounts of material these types of companies and the situations they find themselves in could provide and turn into a more than gripping film, but Runner Runner is not it and more than anything fails to dig into its story or its source of conflict and instead skates by on by-the-number beats that you learn in film school. For as much as we're supposed to be led into the world by Richie and be wowed by the vastness and beauty of Costa Rica and frightened by Ivan and his ruthlessness, his selfishness, and his crocodiles we instead sense none of this as the film has little to offer besides a surface-deep look at online gaming that plays its hand way too early and delivers exactly what the audience is expecting from that point out and nothing more. It's truly a shame because the film has so much going for it and the opportunity to be a fun little thriller that gives insight to those not in on the behind the curtain action of on-line gaming, but it has all these tools only to do nothing with them. The pretty actors, the pretty locations, the over-the-top (but really fun) performance of Affleck or the assured direction of Furman, none of these seem capable of saving the sinking ship that is Runner Runner. Ultimately it is a film fine for all intents and purposes as it tells a coherent story, has a well-positioned if not fleshed out good guy vs. bad guy dynamic with a girl on the side and Anthony Mackie digging into the middle as an FBI agent (nice touch) but with the potential it seemed to possess there was expectation for much more than this. Unfortunately, what we've been dealt is completely forgettable piece of fluff in a year when Timberlake has produced two hit records and Affleck has been named the new Batman, so I'm sure they won't mind if we do exactly that.