In Runner Runner, Richie Furst (Justin Timberlake) is a Masters in Finance candidate at Princeton University – as well as a marketing rep for one of the Internet’s largest online gambling firms. Unfortunately, when the Dean puts an end to the grad student’s referral business, Furst cannot keep up with his tuition payments and is forced to risk the remainder of his savings in the hopes of winning enough money at online poker to pay his way through the rest of school. Raised in the world of high stakes gambling by his father, Furst is a skilled card player, quickly racking up a solid pot of winnings, only to see it all drained away by a suspicious player with an uncanny win ratio.
Convinced that he’s been hustled out of his tuition money, Furst books a flight to Costa Rica to get face time with the reclusive Ivan Block (Ben Affleck), CEO of Midnight Black (the company Furst suspects of cheating), to get his winnings back. Impressed by Furst’s smarts and gambling knowledge, Block offers him a dream job with a seven-figure salary in the picturesque country – even allowing Furst to hire some of his closest friends to assist in managing the company. However, it isn’t long before Furst is contacted by FBI Agent Shavers (Anthony Mackie) who shares a very different perspective on Ivan Block and the Midnight Black empire – insight that puts Furst and his friends in grave danger.
Runner Runner was directed by Brad Thurman, best known for his 2010 critical and commercial hit The Lincoln Lawyer, from a script by Ocean’s Thirteen writing pair, Brian Koppelman and David Levien. Regrettably, despite solid talent behind the camera and a competent cast, Runner Runner is a flat and generic drama thriller from start to finish. Worst of all, despite a number of heavy-handed allegories about risk (and betting on yourself), the film fails to do anything interesting with its gambling subject – which, by the end, is nothing more than a backdrop for a familiar story about corrupt officials and opportunistic business people. In general, it’s not a bad film, as there are plenty of redeeming qualities that will make it entertaining for certain moviegoers, but Runner Runner falls short of delivering anything fresh or unique and merely retraces story arcs and character tropes that audiences will have seen multiple times before.
The biggest drawback for a lot of viewers will be the film’s story – which moves so quickly that it has little time to develop worthwhile payoff or dramatic tension. The brief 90-minute runtime is a cliff-noted version of events – highlighting key moments between characters as they pertain to the larger movements of the story but rarely bothering to provide any subtle moments of development that separate good and great drama stories. Instead, the majority of scenes are on-the-nose point-counterpoint exchanges which gradually reveal Block to be a sociopath, while Furst subsequently adapts to protect himself. Whenever momentum stalls, Thurman introduces a new character (or threat), someone gets punched in the face, or Agent Shavers is brought into the mix for more screen time (and yelling) – because, under the surface, the story and characters are too thin to sustain interest independently.
Still, in spite of mostly one-note roles, the cast manages to keep things engaging. Timberlake once again provides a relatively generic but likable everyman (similar to his desperate/naive/intelligent Will Salas from In Time). The actor delivers in nearly every scene of the film, standing toe-to-toe with a veteran Affleck in a wide range of interactions – where Furst is on top of the world, terrified out of his mind, or desperately attempting to hide fear and discontent. It’s not a particularly nuanced performance but Timberlake elevates Runner Runner through sheer will and charm to distract from otherwise vanilla story material.
Affleck is working on a deeper level, but the clumsy and rushed narrative doesn’t allow the actor to present Block as anything more than a callous and conniving white collar criminal. It’s enjoyable to see the award-winning actor/filmmaker transition Block from a friendly and inviting mentor to a twisted and cruel enemy, but the success of the performance is due entirely to Affleck’s delivery – which offers some cathartic humor in tense but otherwise lifeless scenes. That said, despite some sharp subtleties from Affleck, Block isn’t intriguing enough to sell the movie on his own and falls short as a memorable or particularly inventive antagonist.
Sadly, Gemma Arterton and Anthony Mackie’s Rebecca Shafran and Agent Shavers, respectively, are also missed opportunities – relegated to exposition machines with little individual explorations. Shafran is actually one of the more interesting characters in the movie, with an intriguing backstory as well as drama potential that goes entirely unexplored, and Shavers is stripped down for generic/angry FBI agent duty – which, in spite of likable Mackie in the role, does not present anything fresh about U.S. operatives working outside of jurisdiction.
By far the biggest shortcoming of the film is the lack of interconnectivity between the gambling world and the characters in the movie itself. Early on, a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the online gaming industry is captivating but the film never commits to maintaining the insight as the larger crime narrative locks into place. Throughout the film, Thurman attempts to remind viewers that Runner Runner is about gambling through heavy-handed metaphors and exposition that explain the connections between high-stakes poker and high-roller living but none of these ideas come full circle by the end – as the story locks into a standard cat and mouse chase.
As a result, gambling enthusiasts will likely conclude that Runner Runner is a shallow, and outright superficial, look at their hobby/business while anyone hoping for a sharp-witted look behind-the-scenes will find the film prioritizes generic story beats over innovative drama. Solid performances hint that, somewhere along the line, Thurman lost sight of any captivating hooks in his gambling thriller – instead delivering a bland and familiar narrative that, given the on-the-nose messages about striving for greatness, ironically, takes very few risks.
If you’re still on the fence about Runner Runner, check out the trailer below:
Runner Runner runs 91 minutes and is Rated R for language and some sexual content. Now playing in theaters.
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