2013, R, 91 mins.
2013, R, 91 mins.
Ben Affleck as Ivan Block / Gemma Arterton as Rebecca Shafran / Justin Timberlake as Richie Furst / Anthony Mackie as Shavers / David Costabile as Professor Hornstein
Directed by Brad Furman / Written by Brian Koppelman and David Levien
RUNNER RUNNER perhaps would have been that much more inherently watchable if it just fully embraced its own silly luridness. It’s not that the film does not have an interesting premise on paper, nor is it helmed with unqualified hands (the director is Brad Fuhrman, who previously made the underrated THE LINCOLN LAWYER, and the writers, Brian Koppelman and David Levien, were responsible for the superb ROUNDERS).
No, the real issue here is that in delving into the would-be
fascinating world of online gambling, RUNNER RUNNER never finds an equally
intriguing manner of harnessing its premise to full potential.
Add to that some pedestrian and phoned-in performances, characters
that we never truly invest in, and a narrative that rushes way, way
fast towards a conclusion, and what we are left with is a fairly tedious,
lazily produced, and hollow effort.
Plus, have we not
seen the basic storyline of this film so many other countless times
before…and in better films? RUNNER
RUNNER, at times, feels almost plagiaristic of films like WALL STREET and
BOILER ROOM in the sense that they are all about young hotshots that get
in way over their heads by becoming involved with a wise mentor figure that
later reveals himself to be a duplicitous a-hole of a villain.
Beyond RUNNER RUNNER’s paint-by-numbers blandness and lack of
originality, the screenplay suffers by never fully developing its main
characters, nor does it seem to have any time whatsoever to full realize
its underground gambling world. There’s
something fundamentally compelling about how very powerful and rich men in
foreign countries control every fabric of the online gambling world and,
in turn, have control over millions of players all over the world.
Alas, RUNNER RUNNER really only scratches the bare surface of this,
and never fully nurtures its ideas and themes.
It all starts off
relatively well, though. Richie
Furst (Justin Timberlake, doing what he can to inject some charm and
charisma into his one-note role) was once a wonder kid on Wall Street,
only to have it all come crashing down in the recent economic recession.
He now attends Princeton, but his past job paid so well that he is
ineligible for student loan assistance, forcing him to come up with, shall
we say, creative monetary solutions to fund his master’s degree.
He’s a referral figure, so to speak, for an online gambling site:
he recommends friends and clients to go on to the web site and then
receives a commission for each one that seeks out the site. Regrettably, Princeton's dean threatens to expel him for what he sees as
a breach of conduct, leaving Richie with very little options to pay his
high tuition fees.
In a desperate
Hail Mary attempt, Richie takes out his life savings and attempts to
gamble it all in an online poker match with players that he thinks are
beneath him, only to lose everything to someone that apparently cheated
(he finds this out via a friend and tech geek who spots the phony by
analyzing the site’s statistics). Discovering
the culprit that robbed him resides in Costa Rica, Richie decides to fly
out to the country to confront him (he has no money for tuition and is
apparently penniless, so where he has the funds to travel is never fully
explained). When he arrives
he is able to meet the man who wronged him, a legendary gambling guru and
tycoon named Ivan Block (Ben Affleck), who manages to sympathize with the
kid and offers him a job and a chance to make more money then he ever did
on Wall Street. Richie
agrees, but the more he immerses himself in Ivan’s world the more it
becomes glaringly apparent that Ivan is, yup, a crook.
Relentless predictability then ensues.
RUNNER RUNNER is
a film that seems like it’s the product of a random screenplay generator
that mish-mashed up as many stale, overused, and clichéd parts as required.
The characters here are so broadly delineated and their interactions are
so preordained that it all but robs the film of any forward momentum or
suspense. It’s only a
matter of time, of course, that the good man that is Richie will see the
error of his ways and come up with his own meticulously orchestrated plan
to remove himself from Ivan’s clutches and secure his freedom.
You also just know that Richie will also develop a relationship
with Ivan’s main squeeze (Gemma Arterton, looking good, yes, but in a
nothing throwaway role) that will complicate his life immensely.
And hey, wouldn’t ya know it, even an FBI agent (Anthony Mackie)
shows up to force Richie to work undercover for him in taking down Ivan’s
RUNNER RUNNER is
also a film riddled with logical gaffes to the point of inspiring ample
unintentional laughter while watching it.
Richie seems like an innately bright and sharp-witted dude (he’s
a Princeton student, after all), but he seems utterly blind to the fact
that Ivan is a cold hearted and vicious criminal mastermind far too late
into the proceedings. It’s
also not very credible that he would align himself so
easily and quickly to someone that…ahem…cheated him out of thousands
of dollars. Richie’s
obligatory love affair with Ivan’s girlfriend is not so much reality
defying as it is just artificially constructed to provide the film with
some cheap conflict. This is
not helped by the obvious fact that Timberlake and Arterton are a horribly
mismatched romantic pairing right from the get-go.
Their chemistry is null and void in the film.
Of the small
number of sublime pleasures in the film, I certainly enjoyed Affleck’s
performance, which manages to neither play up Ivan to the point of
cartoonish caricature, nor does he underplay him either.
Even though this is ostensibly a pay check grabbing role for the
recent Oscar winning director, Affleck nonetheless infuses the otherwise
tedious RUNNER RUNNER with a needed jolt of unpredictable energy with his
scenery chewing, Gordon Gekko-lite performance.
One of the film’s more ridiculously entertaining scenes has Ivan
wanting to serve up his captured prey to a pool of ravenous crocodiles in
his James Bondian villain lair. He
coats the bound and gagged victims with chicken fat – crocs apparently love that
stuff! – and then kicks them into the water.
The way Affleck cackles through this scene – with a subtle wink
to the audience – is kind of gaudily entertaining.
Yet, RUNNER RUNNER – when all is said and done – just didn’t make me care about anything or anyone else in the story. By the time the film ever-so-quickly wraps itself up in a third act that fails to generate any semblance of tension, I found myself restlessly jockeying in my theatre chair out of anxiety more than grabbing it out of anticipation for what was to come next. RUNNER RUNNER feels more like something in the conceptual stages than a fully finished and realized final product. It’s simply a one-note thriller noir that shows its cards far too early and never recovers.