Runner Runner is not Inception; it is not a film destined for repeated viewings at film schools, taught and deconstructed in hushed revered tones. That said, for the most part it is fun, silly, and with a collection of genuine stars headed up by Ben Affleck, it does hold your attention for the full ninety minutes.
The film’s plot places the game of poker at its centre. And much like a casual, care free poker game, this movie is more about the chat and the beers, than going home with any kind of substantial reward. As we’ll show you in this Runner Runner review, you won’t leave the cinema with any profound sense of wonder but, if you accept as fun the Hollywood nonsense and charming Hollywood actors, you should have a good time.
The Director Brad Furman has managed to put together the kind of cast that big garish posters demand. Justin Timberlake (presumably in a pause between blockbuster album releases) plays Richie Furst, a young bright university student, who’s down on his luck with major debts to pay. Ben Affleck, fresh from his Oscar acceptance speech for Argo and newly crowned as the coming superhero king with a bat fetish, plays gambling magnate Ivan Block. Mr Block is a man who’s built an online gambling empire in Costa Rica that seems to mainly consist of over the top parties, armies of bikini clad women and a collection of man eating crocodiles. A brooding almost Bond like villain, his corruption of the ambitious but naive Furst is one that could well win the title of this year’s most ‘plain as the nose on your face’ plot development.
Affleck’s performance and presence on screen deliver the films main strength, his recently anointed status as an indisputable heavy weight lend Block a real sense of glamour – a quality that a rogue billionaire gambling kingpin needs if he’s going to be believable. In fact it’s hard to think of a better actor than Affleck to play such a deliciously despicable outlaw and his performance here ranks alongside Boiler Room and Mallrats in that respect. At times you may detect a certain eye rolling impatience with the material as he races absentmindedly through a few of his master-of-the-universe monologues, yet that’s precisely what the character requires, and Runner Runner’s appeal escalates dramatically whenever Affleck enters the frame.
The aforementioned script is one that provides laughs from beginning to end, but only thanks to its at times shockingly bad construction. The opening of the film feels like it’s desperately reaching for the fast paced, hyper articulate beats of Aron Sorkin’s The Social Network, a film that also interested itself in the world of young men using the internet to make their fortunes. Unfortunately, the script by Brian Koppelman and David Levien provides heavy clunking lines like the one delivered by Block upon his young protégé’s arrival to his swanky yacht: “Welcome aboard, this is ‘The House’…Why ‘The House’? Because the house always wins…” Aron Sorkin can rest easy in his throne of ‘scribe-most-likely-to-be-called-for-when-a-veneer-of -intelligence-is-required. ‘
When we first encounter Timberlake’s Richie Furst, he’s attempting to pay tuition by shaking down fellow students for an online poker company. Richie’s extracurricular pastime is quickly quashed by the university’s crusty old dean, which leaves the young man forced to wager his life savings on a round of digital Texas Hold ’Em to stay in school. “I can’t let short-term variance slow me down”, Richie pledges in a further representative example of the film’s stilted dialogue. Despite his gambler’s-son credentials and immense mathematical intelligence, he’s taken for all he’s worth through circumstances that a buddy statistician tells him are about as probable as picking the winning lottery ticket four times in a row.
Bearing evidence of this cheating, Richie heads off to Costa Rica to confront the poker company’s jet setting CEO Ivan Block. Impressed with Richie’s tenacity, Block offers him a job. Piece by piece, however, Richie begins to suspect his boss may not be an entirely legitimate businessman.
The first pointer comes when he watches a cackling Block feed chicken carcasses to the pet crocodiles in his backyard. And all doubts would seem to have been confirmed when an FBI agent accosts Richie to enlist his help in Block’s imminent criminal takedown. However, because the film still has nearly an entire hour left, Richie dutifully heads back into his mentor’s questionable embrace.
The character arc here seems to be the slow process by which greed and accumulated compromises allow innocents to work their way deeper into the heart of corruption but for all his supposed genius, Richie ultimately registers as a rather slow learner who is continually flailing at the obvious lifelines being thrown his way. At long last he decides to strike back, yet his climactic master plan - teased for the last half hour through mysterious meetings and payoffs – is almost laughably rudimentary.
As an exercise in style, Runner Runner has its moments, especially early on where inventive framing and shot selection give scenes a pleasant sheen. This confidence is best showcased by the build up to our first meeting with Affleck’s Block when director Brad Furman gives this key character a visually striking entrance in a minimalist steam bath. Assured style coupled with two engaging performances from Affleck and Timberlake gives the film about corruption and poker a pair of Kings that were never going to win film of the year nominations by themselves, but provide just enough quality for the director to bluff his way to an enjoyable Wednesday evening at the cinema.