It’s a safe bet that even those with no gambling knowledge or interest wouldn’t fall for the schemes that entangle the lead character in Runner Runner, who is a supposed Princeton graduate student, financial expert and poker aficionado.
Indeed, the eye rolls are plentiful during this far-fetched thriller that provides little insight into the corruption in the high-stakes world of online gambling.
Perhaps the filmmakers realized too late that a concept involving thieves stealing money by sitting at a desk and pushing keys on a computer wasn’t visually compelling enough. Instead, the film is an assembly-line collection of trumped-up action sequences involving exotic locales, lavish parties, FBI agents and thugs receiving suitcases filled with money.
Richie Furst (Justin Timberlake) is trying to pay for grad school by steering classmates to a shady online poker site, then collecting a commission. But when Richie loses his entire bankroll, he suspects cheating and gathers proof. Then he travels to Costa Rica to confront Ivan (Ben Affleck), the site’s millionaire owner, and get his money back.
Impressed by Richie’s skill with numbers, Ivan offers him a lucrative position as his assistant. Blinded by the money and by his friendship to Ivan’s alluring wife (Gemma Arterton), Richie is gradually lured into an underworld filled with ruthless mobsters, extortion, racketeering and money laundering. His loyalty is tested as he realizes too late that he must eventually outwit the calculating Ivan to get his life back.
Timberlake has a charismatic screen presence that helps compensate for his character’s lack of common sense. Affleck seems to relish the role of the manipulative slimeball, while Arterton is squandered in a passive role that feels more like a token female presence.
The film feels like a cash-in opportunity for the talent behind the scenes, including director Brad Furman (The Lincoln Lawyer) and the screenwriting team of Brian Koppelman and David Levien (Rounders). Their script seems more concerned with broad melodramatic twists than expanding upon its potentially intriguing premise.
Whether it’s intended as a cautionary tale about the dangers of online gambling or an expose of the greed and double-crossing that pervades the industry, Runner Runner is an half-hearted effort that seems to be a few cards short of a full deck.
Rated R, 91 minutes.