Wait a second! How can a film that combines Batman, Sean Parker, a Bond Girl, and online gambling possibly turn out as dull and mediocre as Runner Runner? Pretty darn easily, apparently. Directed by Brad Furman, whose legitimately terrific The Lincoln Lawyer set Matthew McConaughey on his career resurgence, the film packs mucho star power, boasts a gorgeous Costa Rican locale, and yet lacks the one thing that every thriller needs to succeed: actual thrills.
It's tough to find a reason to care a lick about the terribly-named Richie Furst (Justin Timberlake), a Princeton student getting his hustle on as a recruiter for an online gambling site. A Wall Street washout hoping to get back in the game after securing his degree, Richie has seen first-hand how the system can screw the little guy. "Everybody gambles", he tells himself, a mantra he probably learned from his loser, gambling addict father. When no longer able to rely on his gig to keep up with the hefty tuition payments, Richie does what any reasonable person would do and risks it all pulling an all-night session of online poker. After losing every penny of the $17000 he had in the bank, Richie discovers that he may have been cheated, and makes the rash decision to fly off to Costa Rica to confront the site's owner.
Make sense? Only about as much as raising on a 7-2 off-suit in a game of Texas Hold 'Em. The site is run by Ivan Block (Ben Affleck), an American who runs his gambling enterprise the way Don Corleone ran the Mafia. Even the site's name, Midnight Black, sounds like the moniker some gangster would give his favorite gun. Block keeps the Costa Rican gaming officials off his back through a combination of lucrative payoffs and violent threats, living the lavish life that Richie has always desired for himself. Impressed by Richie's gravitas, Block hires him as his right-hand man and numbers cruncher, putting the Princeton education to good use. Richie gets a taste of what living in style is really like, and that includes scoring with Block's ex-girl (Gemma Arterton) and business partner.
Of course it isn't long before we discover that Block is into some really dirty stuff, and that bullish FBI agent Shavers (Anthony Mackie) will break the rules to take him down. That means putting Richie in a tough spot between his loyalty to Block, his love of the high life, and the most obvious need to not go to jail. There aren't many twists and certainly few turns in a familiar, mid-level crime yarn that sadly has little to do with gambling. You'd expect more insider lingo and poker insight out of writers Brian Koppelman and David Levien having written one of the great gambling movies ever in Rounders. Runner Runner quickly becomes just another story of excess, with all the requisite hot babes, wild parties, and falls from grace we've come to expect. There's never a hint of danger, less urgency, and absolutely zero stakes. That is unless we're meant to care if Richie graduates and becomes some hot shot Wall Street big wig? Not even Timberlake can sell that to the audience right now.
It doesn't help that the normally likable Timberlake is a flavorless dud as Richie. He never quite nails the bad boy persona he's looking for, and his chemistry with the gorgeous but equally-flat Arterton is nowhere to be found. Only Affleck scores as the evil, homesick, and sullen Block, adding color to a character that could have turned out to be a complete joke. Sure, his Pittsburgh accent sounds exactly like his Boston, but you won't care when he's dropping most of the film's best one-liners. In Block we see a guy who probably started out with the best of intentions, but has been changed by the pervasive corruption he helped foster. It's a meatier role than the trailers suggest, and Affleck proves he can rise above pedestrian material such as what Runner Runner provides.