Release Date: October 3, 2013 (p.m. screenings)
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Director: Brad Furman
Screenwriter: Brian Koppelman, David Levien
Starring: Justin Timberlake, Ben Affleck, Gemma Arterton, Anthony Mackie
Genre: Drama, Thriller
MPAA Rating: R (for language and some sexual content)
Plot Summary: Princeton grad student Richie (Justin Timberlake), believing he’s been swindled, travels to Costa Rica to confront online gambling tycoon Ivan Block (Ben Affleck). Richie is seduced by Block’s promise of immense wealth, until he learns the disturbing truth about his benefactor. When the FBI tries to coerce Richie to help bring down Block, Richie faces his biggest gamble ever: attempting to outmaneuver the two forces closing in on him.
Ben Affleck has made three great films in the last few years, all of them starring and directed by the man himself. It’s rather puzzling therefore – after ‘Gone Baby Gone’, ‘The Town’ and ‘Argo’ – what Affleck saw in Brian Koppelman and David Levien’s script or in director Brad Furman to commit to star in this by-the-numbers thriller that arguably adds little to the cred he’s built up so far. Indeed, it’s an odd choice for a multi-hyphenate at a critical turning point in his career when pretty much everyone in Tinseltown was prepared to cast him as a has- been.
In spite of this, Affleck and his co-star Justin Timberlake are about the best things that ‘Runner Runner’ has going for it. The title here refers to a card that either completes a hand or significantly improves one, which is what Affleck’s gambling magnate Ivan Block sees in Timberlake’s Princeton maths whizz Richie Furst at least at the start. But really, fancy titles aside, this is no more than yet another cautionary tale about a young, ambitious up-and-comer who gets way over his head when he is lured into a world of crime and corruption by a smooth-talking, charismatic criminal.
Set against the backdrop of the online poker industry, Furman tries to spin a sleek fast-paced number using the sun-drenched locations in Puerto Rico to stand in for Costa Rica. Just as Block lures Furst into his world of riches, the director best known for his work on the Matthew McConaughey thriller ‘The Lincoln Lawyer’ stuffs the screen with lavish digs, fancy cars, cool boats, private jets and stylish beach parties in the hopes of pulling a fast shimmery one on his audience. To his credit, all that glamour does succeed to mask the movie’s flaws during its brisk setup.
And yet as soon as Furst’s giddy ascent into the shady world of Block’s business is complete, what ensues is pretty much a downhill journey. There’s absolutely no surprise that an overachieving FBI agent (Anthony Mackie) will turn up to enlist Furst in order to take down Block, or for that matter the fact that said agent is willing to risk even Furst’s life in the process. Neither is it any less predictable that Furst will fall in love with Block’s right-hand woman Rebecca (Gemma Arterton), further aggravating the animosity between mentor and protégé.
But perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the plot lies in how simplistic Furst’s plan to demolish Block’s criminal empire turns out to be, an utterly predictable chain of events that only serves to cast aspersions on Block’s own intelligence in the first place. Just like ‘Lawyer’, Furman employs a whole lot of snazzy camera techniques to distract his viewer from the plot failings, but even the casual viewer is likely to find the denouement underwhelming. In fact, the same can be said of the entire slicked up movie, which quickly runs out of any smart moves once you see through its bluff.
That is, even as Timberlake tries his darnest to inject the same kind of smarminess of ‘The Social Network’ into his character. The boyishly charming actor exudes enough wide-eyed naivety at the start to convincingly gear-shift into desperation as things go awry, but it is a clichéd role that does him no favours. On the other hand, Affleck underplays his character’s villainy, and though some may find his performance too nonchalant, it is nicely calibrated to surprise when he reveals a dastardly evil hand.