‘Runner Runner’ attempts to be a big action-drama, detailing the vices of greed, gambling, and the art of the double-cross in the shady practice of off-shore internet gambling. However, ‘Runner Runner’ stumbles from the start with clunky pacing, awkward dialogue, and highly improbably events, leaving the viewer only minimally interested in a story that should otherwise be slick and vibrant.
In another attempt in a lead dramatic role, Justin Timberlake stars as Richie Furst, a bright and skillful (we are told) finance graduate student at Princeton who funds his studies by funneling students and faculty to an online gambling site for referral commissions. When the dean gets wind of Richie’s indirect promotion of gambling on campus, he threatens expulsion if Richie remains involved.
Supposedly left without any other viable source of big-bucks income to fund his Ivy League dreams, Richie decides to attempt to ‘beat the system,’ betting his remaining savings online. And, (to no one’s surprise other than Richie), the grad student loses all his money in online poker to anonymous players who seem to play ‘3 standard deviations’ outside normal gaming practice. Incredulously realizing the site is cheating players, Richie takes his few-page long analysis of the deceit to the untouchable head of online gambling, Ivan Black (Ben Affleck), in Costa Rica. And, without much ado, Richie is able to infiltrate an extravagant, mega-dance party (complete with a Deadmau5-type DJ) for the billionaire and present his data to the bodyguard-surrounded Ivan. Soon after, shrewd and shady Ivan presents Richie with a check for his troubles and offers him a handsomely paid full-time position. With Princeton in his rear view mirror, Richie is soon pulled into the dark-doings and double-crossings that surround the entire Ivan Black operation, ultimately struggling to save himself from going under.
‘Runner Runner,’ indeed, runs through its thin 91-minute plot, a story that hangs on the premise of what happens when making a deal with the devil (skilled, naive Richie vs. seasoned, soulless Ivan Black). In other temptation movies, we feel invested with the ‘good’ character, but, here, Ritchie’s goodness just seems seems too naive to be taken seriously. Are we really to believe that the former Wall Street worker and current 30-something Princeton graduate student is shocked that there are endless layers of seaminess to the out-of-the-country online gaming industry and that banned-from-the-US Black may be doing a number of naughty things?
Additionally, and even more maddening, is that actors frequently discuss plot exposition and announce what is happening, making dialogue forced and unnatural. And, further, we never find out much about the characters themselves (no real romance, no depth of emotion explored, little clear background information), as they all seem to just be pawns in the ‘let’s-move-along’ pace of the script. Anything that would have served to really flesh out the characters and their motivations would have been most welcomed. (Maybe an over-the-top Gordon Gekko’s ‘greed is good’ speech -- a la ‘Wall Street?’ Or a ‘wink-and-nudge’ of a Clooneyesque ‘Oceans Eleven’ scam? Or, heck, even a Timberlake song to break up the monotony?). Timberlake, Affleck, and gal-pal to both leads Gemma Arterton (as Black’s long-time squeeze, Rebecca Shafran) all give reasonable performances, given the story, but they're never enough to make ‘Runner Runner’ accelerate. ‘Runner Runner’ is rated 2+ stars out of 5 (‘not recommended’).
‘Runner Runner’ is rated R for ‘language and some sexual content.’
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