Sometimes it’s easy to see why talented people flock to lesser material, but there isn’t even a shred of a clue why anyone involved with the tepid potboiler Runner Runner would set everything else aside in their schedules to do it. It’s not even really that interesting of a misstep for anyone involved, but rather something so clichéd and bland that it will leave most viewers with a raised eyebrow of incredulity and a facial expression that just says “Really? That was it?” It’s the kind of film that seems almost designed to be watched on airplanes rather than in cinemas.
In a bid to pay off his student debt, Princeton poker whiz Richie Furst (Justin Timberlake) has just lost his entire savings playing online Texas Hold ‘Em, but he knows he’s been cheated by someone within the site who could see his cards. Pissed off and looking to get his money back on his own terms, Richie heads on down to the non-extradition paradise of Costa Rica to confront Midnight Black owner and general sleazeball Ivan Block (Ben Affleck) about the cheat instead of blasting him on the internet. Impressed by his ability to take matters into his own hands, Ivan hires Richie on as one of his morally ambiguous sales reps, but all too late Richie – initially seduced by big money and good times – gets in over his head, pursued by the FBI and the only local officials not in Block’s pocket and being played like a pawn for Ivan’s selfish endgame.
There was a joke going around heading into Runner Runner that some people would have preferred a sequel to Rounders. Then it turned out that Runner Runner is actually written by the same people who came up with Rounders – Brian Koppelman and David Levien – and that joke stopped being funny. Whereas that film still works as a timeless look at gambling culture, this film looks and acts like it came about three or four years late to the online poker party. It’s Calvin Ayre aped villain might have gone over better a few years ago when his skeezy notoriety was still front and centre in the news, but now it feels like a restating of the obvious: that online gambling is inherently shady and run predominantly off-shore for good reasons.
And that’s really all director Brad Furman (The Lincoln Lawyer) and his cast have to work with. No one ever has to tax themselves beyond their obvious archetypes, giving the whole endeavour a mechanical, almost robotic feeling of people simply going through the motions. Timberlake does alright work as the naive and power hungry young hustler with a conscience, but he seems too old for the role (something the film very awkwardly tries to explain away by saying he actually worked on Wall Street for a time before going to university). Gemma Arterton gets the token female moll role, and is wasted in accordance with genre conventions stating she can never once do anything interesting or useful aside from one part where she has to explain to Richie what he has to do. Oliver Cooper and Michael Esper show up as the token best friends Richie brings into the fold and neither exists except to be either put in danger or be the voice of reason, respectively. Anthony Mackie gets saddled with the role of the hard chinned federal agent looking for any excuse to bust our hero and force his cooperation. John Heard has a couple of alright and standard moments as Richie’s equally gambling addicted father. They’re all okay, but they’re okay in the “at least they showed up to work” sense of the word “okay.”
As for recent Academy Award winner Affleck, this feels every bit the kind of film he would have been scoffed at for making back in the early 2000s. He’s bringing the only energy the film really has, but the script doesn’t make him into anything more interesting than an oily slickster with a mean streak. Sure, there’s some fun in watching Affleck tap into the same kind of cockiness that made him a star in his younger days, but even that feels played out by this point, especially when one thinks of how far his career has come in the past several years. This is the kind of film that should be well behind and beneath him at this point.
Runner Runner is so bland I can’t really even think of a fitting poker analogy to close this review out. Maybe the best way to put it is that it’s like being dealt a 2 and a 7 of different suits. The smart move would have been to fold right away, but this film takes the crappy turns and flops in stride knowing it’s playing a losing hand. Like I said, it’s an imperfect metaphor for a deeply imperfect movie. It’s not awful, but I doubt anyone will remember a single thing about it after the credits roll.