Review: ‘Runner Runner’ Plays Its Cards All Wrong

By October 3, 2013
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By James Rocchi, Special to GeekNation

A tale of temptation and duplicity in the big-money world of off-shore online gambling, Runner Runner begins as Justin Timberlake’s striving ex-Wall Streeter Richie Furst tries — and fails — to turn his $17,000 bankroll into the $60,000 he needs for his Princeton Grad School tuition through online poker. But Richie knows he wasn’t simply beaten, he was cheated — and goes to Costa Rica to find Ivan Block (Ben Affleck) the shady entrepreneur behind the poker site where it happened, with proof. Block, a motor-mouthed salesman who knows the house always wins, doesn’t just make it up to Ritchie; he offers him a job. And so, Richie is pulled into a world of money, sex, and glamour; as Ivan notes, contempt and enthusiasm both somehow in his voice, “it’s like everything you ever wanted…when you were 13.”

Runner Runner is directed by Brad Furman, whose The Lincoln Lawyer was a model of economical, speedy storytelling; however, if anyone’s fingerprints are on this movie, it’s those of screenwriter David Levien and Brian Koppelman. Their previous work, on shows like Tilt and especially Rounders explored the world of poker and gambling with unblinking (yet oddly heroic) realism; I can’t help but compare Runner Runner to Rounders, and I also can’t help but feel that comparison leaves the newer film found wanting. It’s not simply because Timberlake’s agreeable charm doesn’t have the gruffer, rougher edges of Matt Damon’s performance in Rounders; it’s also in no small part for the same reason real-world poker is more exciting than computerized poker — in Rounders, the chips and the cash and the cards were out on the table in front of the characters whereas here, they’re just pixelated abstractions of data. And while Rounders was enhanced when it took time to discuss the theory and philosophy of poker, Runner Runner is diminished by lacking either a theory or a philosophy about anything other than luxury, ladies, and lots of money.

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Director Furman moves a camera nicely, but there’s no sense of character behind any of the scenes; Timberlake is clearly our hero, Affleck clearly our villain. Gemma Arterton plays Affleck’s COO with a tanned, tawny lushness that comes as a welcome change, after a string of performances where she put the Brit into brittle; if only the film had any idea of what to do with her. Anthony Mackie is also gruff and growling as an FBI man who’s on the hunt for Block, and it’s precisely the kind of part written so vaguely it might as well be a dotted-line shape of a human walking through the film with a label that says Insert reasonably priced actor here.

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It would be unkind to note that there’s also a huge plothole in the film concerning Richie’s new role in Block’s empire, but there is; more importantly, as glossy and glitzy and handsome and humid as the film may be, it’s not really about anything. When the number one reason the audience has to root for Richie is that he’s played by Justin Timberlake, that’s the sign of a problematic script and a problematic film. At one point, Affleck’s Block notes wistfully, “Any new industry, the first ten years, it’s like Russia after communism; it’s all about strength  and will.” Affleck’s line reading — full of enthusiasm for that kind of Darwinian knockdown — made me sincerely wish that the movie had much less Richie and far more of Ivan. It’s easy to imagine how much better Runner Runner would be if it had a little more grit and a little less gloss, a little less humidity and a little more humanity; as the film stands, it’s a losing bet for all concerned.

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James Rocchi lives in Los Angeles. Born in Canada, he's a regular contributor, interviewer and reviewer for MSN Movies, Indiewire's The Playlist, GeekNation, ScreenCrush.com and the Toronto Star. He's also written for ifc.com, Netflix, Mother Jones magazine and The Guardian UK. A member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, you can find him on twitter @jamesrocchi.