I enjoy watching poker because I am not good at it. Sure, I can tell you what hand beats what and I even know a little bit of the lingo, like “pocket bullets” and “Siegfried and Roy.” (A pair of aces and two queens, respectively.) But I had no idea that “Runner Runner” was a poker term. From the frenetic bits of trailers I had seen, I thought this movie was going to be about drug dealers working out of Central America and I was expecting a Miami Vice styled movie of two bad guys trying to outmaneuver each other. I was sort of right, there are two bad guys trying to outmaneuver each other, but it is over gambling, specifically poker, and not drugs.
Let me start by telling you what the movie doesn’t really, a “runner runner” is when, in Texas Hold-Em, your two hole cards aren’t really worth anything, and aren’t helped by the flop, however when the turn and the river cards come out, they each improve your hand to a winning hand.
Richie Furst (Justin Timberlake) has a crap hand. He was on track to a big Wall Street job when the market went bust and he lost everything. He’s now at Princeton and working his way towards a Master’s degree. He’s paying his tuition by being a “Casino Affiliate,” someone who gets gamblers to go to a casino or website they work for and the Affiliate gets a commission and sometimes a bonus for how much a gambler spends there. (I did a web search for “Casino Affiliate Programs” and I was floored by how many there are out there.)
But let’s get back to Richie in the Dean’s office, having been turned in by another student who has burned up his father’s credit card with online gambling. Richie is given the ultimatum to stop promoting gambling on campus. Richie takes to the internet with the money he has in the bank, and in a dizzying, around the table all night shot, wins his tuition, then loses everything. He turns to some friends in math labs and realizes that he has been cheated and decides to go to Costa Rica to talk to the owner of the website, Ivan Block, (Ben Affleck) to let him know that there is fraud occurring under his nose.
I was pretty well hooked at this point. Timberlake’s acting was impressive, I knew I was supposed to care about him, but I didn’t fully because the movie didn’t make him into too nice a guy. Which ultimately works, because he’s going on to do some pretty bad stuff. The problem is that the writers made it too easy for Richie to get in and become Block’s right hand man. Maybe Ivan just decides that quickly to set Richie up as a patsy, I don’t know. It becomes a game of cat and mouse with FBI Agent Shavers (Anthony Mackie) trying to bring Block down, and being pretty ruthless about it, with Richie stuck in the middle, like a shuttlecock being batted back and forth between the two sides. Also, Block’s female business partner, Rebecca Shafran, (Gemma Arterton) falls in love with Richie.
I’m pretty sure that’s how it was written into the script, as there was no real reason or buildup to why they wind up together. Timberlake and Arterton have believable chemistry in their scenes together, though.
The logical parts of my brain were distracted by the beautiful locales, the beautiful women and the well done cinematography. The soundtrack was also right up my alley, so much so that the music listing was the part of the credits that I paid the most attention to. I was still in it, and I was reasonably entertained. It wasn’t brilliant cinema, but it was enjoyable enough. There were two things keeping me from being able to just enjoy the ride for what it was.
First: I went into this movie to fuel my arguments for why Affleck would make a good Batman. I’ve been defending him so many different times that I can almost unconsciously writer my replies to the “WTF, why Affleck?” crowd. He let me down. Affleck wasn’t menacing enough to be the bad guy here. He wasn’t smooth enough to play the charmer that was supposed to inspire such loyalty from his staff. He was more of a Ben Flat Affect, I think I counted two, maybe three facial expressions from him.
Second: The actual cross and double cross between Block and Richie wasn’t really unique or compelling. It wasn’t completely predictable, but too many parts of it were of the “I saw that coming” variety. I was basically watching two guys, who I didn’t much care about, trying to out douche each other. The very end was a bit too neatly wrapped up, also. I won’t give it all away, in case you decide to go see it, let’s just say that Richie’s crap hand turned into a royal straight flush.
If you do decide to watch the movie, don’t bother to take your brains. Remember the definition of “runner runner” so that it doesn’t bug you during the movie why they threw that out there. Enjoy Justin Timberlake’s acting, enjoy the beautiful sets and scenery. Enjoy the fantasizing about what you would do with giant piles of money in a tropical paradise. Just don’t expect this movie to be on par with a Carl Hiaasen or Elmore Leonard tale. It is more like a game of Fiasco where nobody cared about the setup, and the players quit early to go watch TV.
Final score: 6 out of 11
About Runner Runner
Synopsis: Princeton grad student Richie, believing he’s been swindled, travels to Costa Rica to confront online gambling tycoon Ivan Block. Richie is seduced by Block’s promise of immense wealth, until he learns the disturbing truth about his benefactor. When the FBI tries to coerce Richie to help bring down Block, Richie faces his biggest gamble ever: attempting to outmaneuver the two forces closing in on him. Written by 20th Century Fox Distribution
Directors: Brad Furman
Writers: Brian Koppleman, David Levien
Stars: Justin Timberlake, Ben Affleck, Gemma Arterton
Rated: R for language and some sexual content
Runtime: 91 minutes