Director: Brad Furman
Starring: Justin Timberlake, Ben Affleck, Gemma Arterton, Anthony Mackie
Brad Furman’s Runner Runner is a movie about gambling and as Justin Timberlake’s character Richie Furst assures us in the film’s opening voice over, “Everybody gambles.” Of course not everyone plays online poker, the focus of the film, but whenever you take a chance, whenever you put yourself in a situation where in order to get something there is a chance you could lose something, that is gambling.
Richie is a gambler in every sense of the word. He used to be a Wall Street guy but lost his job and all his savings when the stock market crashed. Having returned to Princeton to complete his Masters, he pays his tuition by promoting and playing online poker. When he becomes convinced that the site has cheated him, Richie heads to Costa Rica to confront online poker tycoon Ivan Block. Block is so pleased that Richie chose to come to him rather than going to the press that he not only refunds his losses but offers him a job and before long Richie is living the high life as Block’s protégé. But of course Block is not the legitimate businessman that Richie had assumed and Richie soon finds himself needing to get his hands dirty, watch his back and ultimately make the biggest gamble of his life.
In the hands of a different, more ambitious filmmaker Runner Runner might have been an interesting, anthropological exploration of the world of online gambling – think what Scorsese did with Goodfellas and Casino – but Furman’s direction doesn’t give it that texture, that requisite sense of authenticity. Truth be told, he may have been hamstrung by the film’s screenplay, which has some problems. The familiar man-out-of-his-depth tale is difficult to completely get on board with because it is hard to believe that Richie, who the film’s early passages at Princeton are supposed to suggest is some kind of genius, could be so incredibly naïve. He seems to be genuinely surprised to discover that something the slightest bit dodgy might be going on at the off-shore online gambling empire he has joined up with.
Justin Timberlake has persevered through the novelty of being a singer who is having a go at acting to establish himself as an actor and has demonstrated some real talent. But at this stage in his career he seems better suited to supporting roles. He doesn’t yet have the charisma as an actor (as a performer is a different matter) to be a Hollywood leading man. Comparatively, despite all the unfair flack he gets, Runner Runner comes alive when Ben Affleck is on screen. He gives Block a real presence, using his usual friendly, charming persona as a disguise for Block’s darker side. While both are forced to wrestle with some pretty stilted dialogue, their predicament is preferable to that of British actress Gemma Arterton. Her character, spray-tanned to within an inch of her life, is as two-dimensional a love interest as you will find and the lack of characterisation means she struggles to generate much in the way of chemistry with either of the male leads.
While Runner Runner has its problems, it is a well enough made thriller that it will keep you interested and as you watch these expert gamblers plan their moves, make their plays and take their chances you will have a bit of fun.
Rating – ★★★
Review by Duncan McLean