For a thriller about the duplicitous world of online gambling, Runner Runner has frustratingly little up its sleeve, and you can blame the writers for that. Though director Brad Furman (The Lincoln Lawyer) does a great job of capturing the alternately glitzy and grimy feel of sunny gamblers’ paradise Costa Rica, and Ben Affleck sinks his teeth into his role with gusto, Runner Runner‘s familiar, lazily plotted script bogs it down with an overabundance of clichés.
In an opening slightly reminiscent of David Fincher’s The Social Network, viewers meet Richie Furst (Justin Timberlake), a brainy Princeton grad student in hot water for promoting gambling on campus. Furst, well-versed in the strategies of online poker, plays for his tuition money one night, only to find himself penniless after losing to an impossibly good opponent. Believing that he’s been swindled, he jets to Costa Rica to confront the site’s corrupt owner Ivan Block (Affleck). When the two come face to face, Furst is tempted by Block’s luxurious lifestyle and agrees to become his right-hand man. With the FBI putting pressure on him to work against Block, and disturbing truths about his employer coming to light, Furst soon finds himself in over his head, with no way out.
Runner Runner deserves props for making a watchable movie out of online poker, certainly a less-than-compelling subject for a thriller. And yet, it’s merely watchable. Nothing is anywhere near as riveting on screen as it should have been, mostly thanks to a very sloppy screenplay. When its final act eventually arrives, Runner Runner‘s plot collapses in an unsightly heap, entirely bereft of both originality and common sense.
Timberlake should also shoulder some of the responsibility. As Furst, he’s painfully wooden, applying the same dopey, wide-eyed expression to every scene he’s in. As a character, Furst is already thoroughly unlikeable, an ex-Wall Street brat who spends his time cheating other students out of their money, but Timberlake does nothing to make him even remotely interesting. Though Furst is meant to be the good guy for audiences to root for, Timberlake’s performance paints him as a bland pretty boy, with none of the smarts for which he’s so consistently acclaimed. The poor casting choice is doubly unfortunate for Runner Runner, as Timberlake’s voice-overs are just as stilted and serve only to deflate tension whenever the film starts to build any.
Worse still is Gemma Arterton, who’s given practically nothing to do other than hover in the background and bat her eyelashes. In The Disappearance of Alice Creed, Arterton demonstrated unmistakable talent, but that’s nowhere to be seen in Runner Runner. Instead, her character is presented as a vapid sex object, completely devoid of personality, designed to be paraded around in front of audiences in order to distract them from plot holes. Her scenes with Timberlake are the film’s most excruciatingly soporific.
Meanwhile, Anthony Mackie provides some light comic relief as dogged FBI Agent Shavers, utterly devoted to taking Block down. It’s an underwritten role, but Mackie makes the most of it, delivering some of the film’s smartest, funniest lines. Unfortunately, John Heard is totally squandered as Furst’s ne’er-do-well father, a career gambler himself.
There’s no question that Affleck is Runner Runner‘s ace in the hole. As the brazenly charismatic Block, he’s a thrill to watch, pulsating with edgy charm and dangerous energy. Whenever he appears on-screen, if only for a few minutes, the film grows noticeably more exciting and enjoyable. A movie with a script as hackneyed as Runner Runner‘s doesn’t deserve an actor of Affleck’s caliber, but he still refuses to phone it in, inflecting each line with swaggering, machismo menace.
The only other part of Runner Runner that truly excites is Furman’s stylish direction. Extravagant parties throb with lurid vitality, and both the characters and their surroundings are presented with particular attention to rich, vivid color. As Furst is entranced by the gaudy exterior of Block’s empire, Runner Runner demonstrates some surprisingly complex camera techniques and dizzying fast cuts that do much to convey his initial babe-in-the-woods giddiness. And when Furst finally sees Block’s operation for the dirty Ponzi scheme it is, the film’s atmosphere suddenly becomes threatening and murky.
Sadly, neither Affleck’s performance or Furman’s direction can save Runner Runner from its limp, doltish script. None of the action feels as pressing or urgent as it should, and the film’s inevitable twist is one of the most poorly executed cinematic double-crosses in recent memory. None of the characters are consistent in their actions, and the motivations of Arterton’s character in particular are both illogical and shoddily communicated. Throughout the film, the feeling persists that all of the dialogue is designed simply to get the characters from point A to point B, with little regard for intelligence or even coherence.
To look at Runner Runner is to wonder at what could have been and then sigh in disappointment at what actually is. Though its two bright spots are exceedingly bright, Runner Runner suffers from an unequivocally by-the-numbers storyline and otherwise weak acting.
I won’t say I felt cheated by Runner Runner; as a thriller, it’s passable. Unfortunately, the film is nowhere near as smart, absorbing or entertaining as it should have been. Most of Runner Runner ultimately feels like a regrettably wasted opportunity, and the odds of you being able to recall its plot as you walk out of the theater are slim. It’s tedious, predictable and decidedly mediocre, a pretty-looking house of cards filled with nothing but hot air.
Not even a stellar turn from Ben Affleck can completely save Runner Runner from its banal, brainless script. Vacant performances from Justin Timberlake and Gemma Arterton only add to the sense of overwhelming futility.