Even with its goofy concept involving the murky depths of the Internet poker world, Runner Runner is a solid thriller with a good cast — and a movie I will forget I ever watched six months from now. The film wants to be taut and violent and sexy and clever, but rarely even flirts with any of these. What’s left is a film that’s watchable, and in the doldrums of autumn moviegoing, it’s depressing to admit that this in itself is something of a small victory.
The movie tells the convoluted story of Richie (Justin Timberlake), a Princeton grad student who once tried to hack it as a Wall Street wunderkind, at least until the economy tanked. These days, Richie’s stuck trying to pay off his tuition with online poker. Turns out he’s a smart kid with a knack for gambling, as proven by all the jargon he throws out in the film’s lazy narration. Everything’s fine until Richie’s cheated by one online site and loses all of his savings. Acting as any reasonable adult would, he flies to Costa Rica to confront the site’s owner, Ivan Block (Ben Affleck), in hopes of getting his money back. Impressed by Richie’s chutzpah, Ivan does one better and offers Richie a job.
Despite Richie’s new-found wealth, it’s obvious that things aren’t on the up-and-up. Ivan’s bribing the local government while an FBI agent (Anthony Mackie) is hot on his trail, amongst other shady goings-on. The plot finally kicks in as Richie must use his smarts to get out of this hairy predicament, both with his life intact and without landing in some Costa Rican prison — all the while keeping his professional gambler father (John Heard) unharmed. As far as premises go, the plot is serviceable, while Timberlake, Affleck and Gemma Arterton (as Richie’s love interest) are all solid.
So what, exactly, is the problem? There’s just not a lot to get excited about. Director Brad Furman (The Lincoln Lawyer) does nothing new with the material, which never climbs above the standing of generic thriller. Part of this is because of the script, which is never clever enough to transcend mediocrity. But a lot of the blame should also fall on Furman, who has difficulty telling a coherent story and relies way too much on Richie’s narration to keep the film intelligible. Runner Runner is flawed on a basic storytelling level, and the fact that it’s not a total disaster is as much praise as I can award it. Rated R for language and some sexual content.
Playing at Regal Biltmore Grande, United Artists Beaucatcher