A rotely formulaic good-kid-falls-in-with-the-bad-crowd thriller, Brad Furman’s Runner Runner aspires to become another Wall Street but the script (from Rounders scribes Brian Koppelman & David Levien) is so generic and predictable that the film barely manages a pulse. Some slick filmmaking, a brisk pace, and short running time save it from being a total disaster.
Runner Runner is set in the world of online gambling (its title a Texas Hold ‘Em term referring to making a backdoor hand off of the turn and the river), where Princeton whiz kid Richie Furst (Justin Timberlake) puts himself through college by promoting gambling sites to his classmates; a Wall Street trader before the economic collapse, Richie’s previous high earnings make him ineligible for financial aid.
But after the dean puts a kibosh on his campus money making, Richie puts it all on the line… and promptly loses his entire bank account playing poker on Midnight Black. But things didn’t seem right; after some careful analysis, Richie determines his competitors just had to have been cheating, and he’s got the numbers to back that up.
His plan for getting back on track? Travelling to Midnight Black headquarters in Costa Rica, finagling his way into their affiliates’ party, and confronting founder Ivan Block (Ben Affleck) with his findings. Surely Block – living in exile and conducting business abroad due to an FBI investigation into his shady practices – will lend a helping hand.
As Richie falls in with Block and his less-than-legitimate enterprise, we know exactly where the rest of this is going (hasn’t he seen any of these movies?) Runner Runner’s formula dates back not only to Wall Street, but back to 1930s drug and gangster flicks (coincidentally, the day before catching this I was watching 1944’s I Accuse My Parents, which followed the same exact formula down to a T).
But where Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko was a fascinating, morally ambiguous characterization of all things capitalism, Runner Runner’s Ivan Block is a simple-minded thug. Not only does strict adherence to formula mean that we’re several steps ahead of Richie throughout the film, but we’re also incredulous that he could fall in with this guy in the first place. Isn’t this Princeton student supposed to be smart?
Still, what little fun Runner Runner has to offer is watching Affleck – coming off the Oscar-winning Argo, and recently cast as Bruce Wayne in the upcoming Batman vs. Superman – slumming it here as a one-dimensional sleazeball. The film just barely starts to come alive when he’s on screen, which unfortunately isn’t enough.
An obligatory love interest is played by the ravishing Gemma Arterton. As Rebecca, a hopelessly cliché cardboard cutout (formerly romantically involved with Block, she now works with him to manipulate Richie, who she begins to develop feelings for), Arterton has little to work with – and zero chemistry with Timberlake. The romance angle here feels especially arbitrary.
In underwritten supporting roles, Anthony Mackie plays an FBI agent on Block’s trail, while John Heard stars as Richie’s gambling-addicted father. Bob Gunton and David Costabile (Breaking Bad) show up in single scenes as the Dean of Princeton and a hustled professor, respectively.
The exotic setting helps keep things interesting, and cinematography by Mauro Fiore (Avatar) captures both the beauty and grit of the locale even if the screenplay shies away from contrasting Block’s indulgent lifestyle with his less-fortunate neighbors. Puerto Rico stood in for Costa Rica during filming.
Director Furman previously made the surprisingly deft The Lincoln Lawyer, which began Matthew McConaughey’s career resurgence, and does what he can here: the polished presentation and a quick pace keeps Runner Runner from wearing out its welcome. But there’s only so much that could have been done with the paint-by-numbers script.