Available this week on DVD, “Runner Runner” starts off with some promise but dwindles into predictable mediocrity all too quickly — and stays there. Stars Ben Affleck and Justin Timberlake duel first with each other and then with the viewer to see who can be more bored. It signifies that is a poker movie in which we never get to see a hand of real poker being played. Too bad, as doing so might have lent some tension to the proceedings. Instead, director Brad Furman (who did a creditable job with “The Lincoln Lawyer”) and screenwriter Brian Koppelman (whose screenplay for “Rounders” actually does capture the suspense of poker) bring forth a by-the-numbers dud that never gets past the ante, let alone up it.
Timberlake plays Princeton grad student Richie Furst, a busted ex-Wall Streeter who’s working his way through school by getting his peers hooked on online gambling. As an “affiliate” for the site, Richie gets a small fee, but Richie ain’t rich. On the contrary, he’s in the hole on his tuition for a cool $17,000, and the dean is threatening to expel him, his math whiz credentials notwithstanding.
So Richie goes all in, ignoring the warnings of his friends and whatever shards of good sense he may possess. (These are not evident here or later.) Of course, he goes for broke and goes bust, though he can’t figure out how the “fish” he is playing against seem to know the cards he holds. The answer: he was cheated. Proving this to his own satisfaction, he jets off to Costa Rica to confront the site’s owner, millionaire kingpin Ivan Block (Affleck) who is obliged to live there as the FBI has it in for him.
Against the odds, he gets a meet with Block, who admires Richie’s chutzpah and offers him his money back or wealth beyond his dreams if he’ll join the organization. Lured by the big money and Block’s alluring partner and perhaps ex-girlfriend, Rebecca (Gemma Arterton), Richie grabs for the gold, dragging in a couple of friends with him. And he succeeds, quickly working his way up the ladder and into Block’s confidence. Hey, he even gets to carry the bribe money Block is paying to the local gaming commissioner and to watch as the boss feeds chicken carcasses to the crocodiles at the end of his pier. Some fun!
These may be clues that all is not on the up and up. Sure enough, an FBI agent (Anthony Mackie) shortly appears and puts the pressure on Richie to betray Block if he ever wants to see New Jersey again. When Richie’s friends start bailing and/or disappearing, it dawns on our obtuse hero that he’s being set up, which suspicion Rebecca confirms. Oh, and Block also holds Richie’s debt-ridden, compulsive gambler dad (John Heard) captive, yet another chip he plays. Will Richie be able to bribe and connive his way out of taking the fall and make off with the cash and the girl? Place your bets.
Affleck, winner of last year’s Best Director Oscar for “Argo,” walks through this role looking like he’d rather be behind the camera.(Unlike Richie, he clearly doesn’t need the money.)Timberlake has shown some promise in films like “Trouble with the Curve,” but he doesn’t have the acting chops to carry a movie by himself. Amongst a bevy of barely-clad girls, Arterton gets to be the main eye candy.
“Runner Runner” is rated “R” for language, violence, and sexuality. The title derives from a Texas Hold ‘Em phrase for a very long shot gamble, almost always a foolish one. The producers of this flop — including Leonardo DiCaprio! — should have folded on this before even starting it. It was a loser at the box office and deserves to lose again in the rental sweepstakes.