Not a soul succeeds in Runner Runner, a low-aiming, by-the-numbers thriller about the high-stakes world of online gambling. Not Ben Affleck, who looks a long way in his role as smug Ivan Block, the "wizard of odds", who lives like a king down in shaded Costa Rica. Not Gemma Arterton, a nuclear tan as a cut-price femme fatale. Not even Justin Timberlake as Richie, the Princeton rookie who decides to take a flap on a risky new career. Risky? Surely not, what with all that trouble-free money, foaming champagne and lavishness yachts. Admittedly, Ivan has been known to twist the rules and spread some palms, but he's a good guy and a polite boss.
Richie Furst (Justin Timberlake) leads the movie. Extremely educated, smart, and also butting heads with authority figures, Richie is facing eviction from Princeton for requesting students and professors to join an online gambling site. It’s a platform that earns him enough to pay his tuition fee, but forced to give it up, he suddenly finds himself unable to earn $60,000 to stay in school. The solution? Nope, he’s not taking a loan. Instead, he risks the $17,000 or so he has in the bank and goes all in with a marathon session of online poker. The result? On the point of winning what he needs, he gets hustled by the gaming site, and does what anyone would do on the brink of going broke: flies to Costa Rica in a long shot bid to tackle the head honcho of the site to let him know that he knows the setup is planned.
Don’t Over Think It Too Much, Just Go With It
Because there will be more judgment dives you’ll have to admit as the movie goes on. The man at the top of Midnight Black is Ivan Block, an ex-pat American whose officially grey operations keep him exiled and homesick from his native land, and his beloved Pittsburgh. At first, Ivan brushes off Richie, but in the cold light of morning, he realizes the kid may be an advantage, so not only does he offer him the money he lost in full, but a six-figure income job working for Midnight Black. Sitting on Ivan’s yacht and already tasting a bit of the good life, Richie accepts. But it isn’t long until he finds out that Ivan is hiding some dark secrets, and pressed between a bullheaded, tricky FBI agent (Anthony Mackie) keen to take down the online kingpin, and the increasing instability of his boss, Richie will have some plan to stay alive and out of jail.
The film was written by Brian Koppelman and David Levien, who surely know their way around this world, having penned “Rounders” and the “Ocean’s Thirteen.” But Runner Runner is less about gambling as it is generally about a man with a enormous fortune, doing everything he can illegal or legal, to keep growing his kingdom. If Ivan Block were a real estate broker or drug dealer, the movie wouldn’t change all that much, and that’s part of the hitch. It feels like a movie you’ve seen a hundred times, mid-budgeted dramatic thrillers of the mid-’90s that will fill programming slots on late night forever.
Ivan Block is the best, most well-written character of anyone in the film and Affleck really makes the most of it. He gets all of the best lines, and while the trailers have played up his most dramatic moments, he actually chooses to underplay his bad guy for the most part, a smart move toward a role that could easily become a cartoon. Affleck fills in the shades of a character who is almost annoyed of the isolation his success breeds, and whose business has almost become a mean game of influencing everyone who crosses his path. These notes are beated easily by Affleck, who still knows enough to understand he’s in a B-movie, and lands on the right side of self-seriousness, while having a bit of fun too. And in his shadow, Timberlake’s go in front being even more forgettable and thin, while Gemma Arterton‘s stock role of the girl who comes between the two guys is so cliché, it’s like everyone gave up on making it slightly interesting.
As movie heads into its final act, the breathless familiarity of the tropes and beats of this kind of movie start to become more deadly, as the plotting becomes muddier to the point where Justin spends a good amount of time running around handing out envelopes. As Ivan fades into background, and Richie comes to the front, the film gets less and less interesting, until it all finishes rather anti-climatically, with a couple of sour one liners tossed in for good measure.
Unwillingly making statements about the seductive appeal of a life in paradise, the murky waters of legalized gambling, it is content to stay high shine, with no stuffing. Furman directs this with more style that it probably lawfully deserves, capturing both the grand surroundings of Ivan’s business, the scummier, seedier parts of Costa Rica where the less than legal business goes down, with an eye for color. But not like “The Lincoln Lawyer,” it’s not adequate, even united with a game turn from Affleck, to trick viewers into believing that the movie is more than a cinematic bluff. With Affleck at its center, movie becomes tedious study in a poker face with other things on its mind.