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Runner Runner

D: Brad Furman / 91m

Cast: Justin Timberlake, Ben Affleck, Gemma Arterton, Anthony Mackie, Michael Esper, Oliver Cooper, Christian George, Yul Vazquez, John Heard, Bob Gunton

Supporting his financial outlay at university by acting as a facilitator for an online gambling organisation, Richie Furst (Timberlake) is ratted on to the Dean (Gunton) who gives him an ultimatum: either quit or be expelled.  Richie’s response is to bet all his remaining money on an online gaming site; when he loses it all he suspects the game was rigged.  When he finds proof, he determines to travel to Costa Rica – where the site is based – and show the site’s owner, Ivan Block (Affleck), what he’s found.  Grateful for Richie’s information, he offers him a job which Richie accepts.  Now living the high life, Richie begins to woo Ivan’s personal assistant (and ex-lover) Rebecca (Arterton).  While Richie enjoys his new lifestyle, things begin to crumble around him. He is targeted by FBI agent Shavers (Mackie) who tells him Block is a scam artist.  Two of his friends who came to work for Block on Richie’s recommendation begin to find strange anomalies in the way Block’s site is run.  When one of them ends up beaten to death, Richie finally begins to realise the enormity of the situation he’s got himself into.

Advertised as a thriller, Runner Runner certainly has thriller elements, but largely this is a crime drama that keeps the actual crime so far off screen that it might as well not be there.  That Block is running a scam seems of little consequence against the effect it has on Richie; the movie concentrates almost exclusively on how Richie is betrayed time after time, and then how he retaliates.  There’s a larger story here with the possibility of a much wider drama being explored, but the script by Brian Koppelman and David Levien keeps things restricted to Block’s empire, with occasional side trips to island enforcer Herrera (Vazquez), the man Block has to pay in order to keep his business running.

Ben Affleck, Justin Timberlake

What doesn’t help is the incredible naïveté that Timberlake is forced to adopt due to the laziness of the script.  For someone attending Princeton, Richie is possibly the dumbest student you’re ever likely to meet.  He falls for Block’s spiel hook, line and sinker, and even when he’s tricked time and time again, he still carries on as if Block’s assertions are just “part of the job”.  Even when he realises how much trouble he’s in he tries to escape back to America, something agent Shavers has already told him would not be permitted.  And then, when he agrees to help the FBI and the Costa Rican police bring down Block, he’s suddenly able to turn the tables just…like…that.

Making online gambling interesting is something the movie also fails to achieve, and a   few over-the-top parties that Block hosts aside, there is little glamour here.  Costa Rica is a beautiful country but you wouldn’t know it from the glimpses you get of it, and Arterton, who has a pouting attractiveness, is relegated to the sidelines for most of the movie.  So what you end up with is a movie that looks and feels bland and uninteresting, and as a result, ends up disappointing its audience in almost every scene.

Furman directs with an indifference to the material that makes you wonder if he saw the problems ahead of time and decided just to take the pay.  Timberlake sleepwalks through most of his scenes, while Affleck looks embarrassed by some of the dialogue he has to (try to) give credibility to.  Arterton is wasted, Mackie tries too hard and gives a one-note performance, and Heard is saddled with a character so similar to his role in Sharknado (2013) it’s almost embarrassing.  With no one trying very hard either in front or behind the camera, Runner Runner is doomed to fail from the very first frame.

Rating: 4/10 – a silly, shabby drama with pretensions toward being a thriller, Runner Runner is the cinematic equivalent of roadkill; a low point for all concerned that will be hard to beat.