A film review by Craig J. Koban October 11, 2013 

RUNNER RUNNER jj
 

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 too 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 empire.  Yadda…yadda… 

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.

 

 

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