‘Runner Runner’ Review
“What can’t Justin Timberlake do?” said the internet after the performer dominated 2013 with the release of two albums, a musical turn in Cannes favorite ‘Inside Llewyn Davis,’ and a handful of Jimmy Fallon late-night sketches that all went viral. ‘Runner Runner‘ suggests there’s really one thing: convince us he’s anyone but Timberlake.
‘Lincoln Lawyer’ director Brad Furman directs the middling thriller, another gambling-infused escapade from ‘Rounders’ writers Brian Koppelman and David Levien that packs the integrity of their previous efforts without any spark. The writing duo can talk the poker talk, this time immersing their script in the seedy world of online betting. Their leading man can’t keep up.
‘Runner Runner’ jolts us back to a ‘Social Network’ scenario, with Richie (Timberlake) being a combination of Mark Zuckerberg’s brains and Sean Parker’s brawn. He knows online poker in and out, rattling off statistics, complex algorithms, and strategic card tactics like the ABCs. But when his college tuition money is on the line, a list ditch effort to keep himself enrolled at Princeton, he’s bested by a faceless competitor. Analyzing the play data of his opponent, Richie concludes there was no logical way he could have lost the game. He was cheated. So he does what every brainiac MFA student with a knack for gambling would do: Richie hitches a one-way ticket to Costa Rica to tell the owner of the site/reported mob boss Ivan Block (Ben Affleck) that his site doesn’t play by the rules and he wants his money back. Kill the billionaire racketeer with kindness! Foolproof.
Richie is a gifted problem solver, charming his way through Block’s rings of security — at one point, he enacts an unbelievable Frank Abernale/’Catch Me If You Can’-style con — and spitting out just the right words when the all-business power player hears him out (instead of immediately planting one in his skull). It’s common sense where the grad student falters — Block twists the situation into a job opportunity for Richie, turning the kid into his number one confident. Richie wheels and deals and it all looks very suave without making a whole lot of sense. At least 96 hours of ‘World Series of Poker’ marathoning or a weekend at the craps table with your grandma is recommended before diving into the jargon of ‘Runner Runner.’
Furman’s approach is similar to ‘Lincoln Lawyer,’ making sure it looks like a movie while allowing the script and actors do the rest. There’s not a lot of stylization, simply because there’s not a whole lot to style. In poker terms, ‘Runner Runner’ is full of bluffs; as Block’s thinly veiled ulterior motives are uncovered, they’re revealed as more number-crunching, Bernie Madoff-level crimes. He’s a briber — a legit terror to the US, but one that doesn’t play too well on camera. An F.B.I. agent (Anthony Mackie) tries to yank Richie out of the sticky situation, only to be turned down by the stubborn kid again and again and again. Every time ‘Runner Runner’ has the opportunity to go all in, it checks. The stakes remain low, even when the music pounds away at routine thriller pace.
Affleck steals the show. Maybe it was his dark horse positioning as “the director of 2012’s Best Picture trying his hand at acting once again.” Well, he kills it. As Block, Affleck glows with the aura of a veteran, cutting Timberlake down a thousand notches with a confident stare. And he manages to have fun with it; despite ‘Runner Runner”s overly serious tone, Affleck taps the comedic talents that made early Kevin Smith watchable. He’s a one-liner king.
The foundation of ‘Runner Runner’ is inherently intriguing. Off-shore gambling ringleaders really are treated like the 21st century equivalent of Al Capone. (Learn more on that in ‘The Accidental Billionaire’ author Ben Mezrich’s new book, ‘Straight Flush.’) But the movie can’t pressurize the situation, even with a number of countdown clock elements introduced late in the game. Timberlake’s stiff doesn’t reflect the seduction of the game or the heat of being in over one’s head. Co-star Gemma Arterton, as Block’s girlfriend assistant, attempts to provoke him, enlivening the few moments the script throws her. By the time the turn is flipped, ‘Runner Runner’ is left crossing its fingers, praying for coherency instead of dominating the table. At least, like a night of poker, playing and losing still entertains. As long as one doesn’t dwell on the lost cash.
‘Runner Runner’ runs into theaters this Friday, October 4.
Matt Patches is a writer and reporter whose work has been featured on New York Magazine’s Vulture, Time Out New York, Film.com, and Hollywood.com. He is the host of the pop culture podcast Operation Kino.