20th Century Fox
Be warned: while Runner Runner is set up to be a high-stakes thriller with Justin Timberlake gallivanting through Costa Rica, it's more of a lukewarm, predictable take on the old in-way-over-your-head story. The film promises to take us deep into the underworld of online poker, but settles on trying to pacify us with wealth, scantily clad women, and cliché one-liners like, At Princeton, you're either bred for it, or you bleed for it, and, The house always wins.
Runner Runner stars Timberlake as Princeton grad student Richie Furst who loses all of his tuition money in an online gambling scam. Backed up against the wall, Furst shows his thirst for money (and rash decision-making skills) and jets off to Costa Rica in search of Ivan Block (Ben Affleck), the charmingly sly ringleader of the online poker site. Once he's face to face with the infamous offshore entrepreneur, Furst gets a compelling (and suspicious) offer: he can either take the money that was swindled from him and go back to the U.S. or stay and work for Block and make millions of dollars. It takes all of three seconds for Furst to agree to the latter. What follows is a perfunctory 60 minutes of Timberlake having a passionless romance with Block's beautiful right-hand woman (Gemma Arterton), avoiding a cheeky F.B.I. agent (Anthony Mackie), blackmailing people he doesn't know, and making overall poor choices that make us wonder why we're even supposed to be rooting for this seemingly dimwitted protagonist who has so few redeeming qualities, if any at all.
Written by Brian Koppelman and David Levien, the duo that brought us the gambling flick Rounders in 1998, Runner Runner advertises countless thrills, but as soon as we think we're about to hit a climax or an Aha! moment, we're let down by unfulfilling (and often unnecessary) plot twists that director Brad Furman (The Lincoln Laywer) attempts to disguise with the glitzy Costa Rican lifestyle. Instead of one cohesive plotline, we're taken along a bumpy ride through an underdeveloped and disjointed story that would be better off with fewer ingredients. By having too many storylines that are never brought to completion, we're left confused by the vagueness of it all.
And when the plot starts to go downhill and we don't know where to turn, we look to the characters to save the day, but unfortunately, nearly none of them have any meat to them (except for Affleck, whose strong and convincing performance as immoral Block is comprised of his trademark charm and an emerging inner villain who wants to come out to play). Too bad Affleck's character doesn't get as much screentime as he deserves. Instead, we're left with Timberlake (who fails to convince the audience that he can play any other character than Justin Timberlake), the handful of supporting characters that are never flushed out, and poor Gemma Arterton, who plays a woman who lacks chemistry (which isn't entirely her fault) with both Timberlake and Affleck. Runner Runner makes us apathetic to both the characters and the plot, which leaves us feeling completely uninvested. For a film about gambling, an inherent game of risk and reward, Runner Runner takes little to no chances and ends up with a losing hand.
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