Richie Furst (Justin Timberlake) was a Wall Street hot-shot once upon a time, but when the economy tanked so did his job. Now he’s forced to attend Princeton on his own dime which is an untenable situation as he only has 170,000 dimes to his name. He lights upon the genius idea of gambling his $17k into enough to cover tuition on an online poker site called Midnight Black, but while he’s a financial whiz and a Texas Hold’em master he’s shocked when he loses it all to another player. Suspecting foul play he has the data analyzed, and sure enough, he’s been cheated.
So he packs his bags and flies off to the absolutely and completely corrupt nation of Costa Rica where Midnight Black’s CEO, Ivan Block (Ben Affleck), resides outside of the United States’ jurisdiction. Furst finagles some face time, shares his accusation of the site’s malfeasance, and is promptly offered a job with the company. What job? Not important. All of his financial dreams are coming true, but the whole endeavor is threatened by the love of a bad woman (Gemma Arterton), the faults of a weak father (John Heard), and the actual threats of a rogue F.B.I. agent named Shavers (Anthony Mackie). Also, crocodiles.
Runner Runner is a movie made by people who’ve seen other movies and thought to themselves, yeah, I can do that. It manages to be both convoluted and simplistic, busy and ultimately empty, and it does it all with expository narration that boils storytelling and character development down to poker references and metaphors. A lot of poker references and metaphors.
“This isn’t poker. This is my life.”
Poker films have a long and varied history, and while the best of the sub-genre (The Sting, Rounders) become much more than just the sum of that “poker film” label most aren’t as ambitious. And yet, even the least of them (21, Lucky You) usually try for something more. Which brings us to director Brad Furman’s new film, which admittedly is less of a poker film than the ads imply, but even so is uninterested in telling an interesting story populated with engaging characters.
At ninety minutes the film moves along at a healthy clip, but it feels like more than a few pieces are missing. Story elements jump around devoid of connective tissue leaving audiences to fill in the gaps. It’s not an issue of the film simply not spoon-feeding viewers. It’s a matter of relevant details left unwritten, unfilmed, or on the cutting room floor. In the place of actual story and character we get cliches, a half-baked romance, and clunky narration that attempts to spackle the gaps with an endless stream of poker terminology. Even the film’s two attempts to milk suspense from the games, an online poker match and a pointless craps round, come up dry. Worse, even the non-game elements of this supposed thriller (of sorts) fail to reache anything resembling excitement, suspense, or menace.
Furman has shown himself a solid director with the right script before him as evidenced by 2011’s The Lincoln Lawyer. He has no such luck here leaving his film dependent on the cast and visuals. The latter are passable without ever being memorable, and the former being a mixed bag. Timberlake has come a way since his unintentionally comedic turn in In Time, but he’s still worlds away from carrying a film as a lead. It’s always good seeing Mackie and Heard on the big screen, but they add little here, and the less said about Miss Arterton the better. Which leaves us with Affleck, who not only manages the film’s best performance, but he finds the role’s fun spot without playing him over the top.
At best, Runner Runner is a lesson in how easy it is to bribe every last public official and citizen of Costa Rica, but knowing how much else it gets wrong I wouldn’t want to be the one to test the theory.
The Upside: Ben Affleck; a few humorous moments; John Heard; only ninety minutes long
The Downside: Story never feels legitimate or engaging; convoluted yet simplistic; predictable at every turn; ludicrous character behaviors; narration used for metaphor-filled exposition; romance is empty; feels like connective plot tissues were left on the cutting room floor; Justin Timberlake
On the Side: Unsurprisingly, the movie was not filmed in Costa Rica. Instead, Puerto Rico was used as a stand-in.