Not being much of a gambler, I can’t speak to how thrilling online poker is to play, but it’s completely uninteresting to watch, and it makes for a boring as hell story. Despite that, director Brad Furman manages to make Runner Runner a fairly engaging crime thriller, thanks to a script by Brian Koppelman and David Levien that’s brought to life by winning performances from Justin Timberlake, Ben Affleck and Gemma Arterton.
Timberlake (Trouble With the Curve) plays Richie Furst, a disgraced Wall Street prodigy who’s paying for graduate school at Princeton by recruiting students to play online poker. Despite admonitions from the dean to stop his side venture, Richie gambles away his tuition money; but when a little investigating reveals he’s been cheated out of his money, he flies to Costa Rica to confront businessman Ivan Block (Affleck) about possible crooks working for him. Impressed by Furst’s moxie, Block offers him a job, and the aspiring Wall Streeter soon finds himself in penthouse apartments managing a huge portion of the entrepreneur’s business. But as he becomes more involved in day-to-day operations, he discovers a dark side to Block’s success, and he’s soon forced to decide whether the financial rewards are worth the potential danger to his life.
Once the film gets past its premise – online poker, gibberish percentages and all sorts of financial maneuvering – Runner Runner is pretty compelling stuff. Koppelman and Levien (Rounders) manage not to tip the film into melodrama, showcasing Furst’s levelheadedness from the beginning – he’s a failed trader who’s trying to rebuild himself – and then showing how easily one can be manipulated into manipulating others. Furst makes no grand descent into hell, but he gets a quick education from Block how to use people’s worst impulses against them, and his choices are presented with an admirable matter-of-factness that avoids turning the story into a morality play.
At the same time, some of its nuances are actually too shaded – or at the very least, the characters aren’t well enough defined for certain plot developments to feel natural rather than scripted. As Rebecca, Block’s former lover and assistant, Arterton exudes suntanned sophistication, but she is less convincing as a true companion to Furst, who takes an immediate shine to her and, more or less explicably, she to him. It’s difficult to believe her when she says her relationship with Furst is deeper than the one she shared with Block, and the film hardly devotes enough attention to the character for us to see where the line is drawn in her between deceit and sincerity.
As a whip-smart businessman looking for a golden opportunity, Timberlake has played this role (or at least it seems like he has) to perfection in the past, and he lends the character believability, if not any great amount of substance. As Block, meanwhile, Affleck seems to be aware he might have been on the opposite side of this relationship 10 or 15 years ago, and combines his natural charisma with the ease and authority his longevity in Hollywood has provided him. In fact, he proves to be the most interesting character in the film, notwithstanding his cliched self-justifications (“sneaker companies use third-world labor, and I’m the crook?” etc.), and it’s this sort of Affleck role that audiences should welcome, boasting both street smarts and bona fide education, a deadly combination of sophistication and ruthlessness.
Anthony Mackie (Pain & Gain) has a showy, fun but small role as an FBI agent who puts the squeeze on Timberlake’s character, and it’s in his scenes – and those with Affleck at his most relaxed – the film is at its most fun, a sinister thrill ride that manages to be both tense and unhurried.
Koppelman and Levien are amazingly gifted at writing these characters and these scenarios, and can do it in their sleep. And with a solid script, Furman tackles the material with a subtlety and intelligence that elevates it. Ultimately, however, it’s still the same sort of game that audiences have seen time and time again – which is why, and not to put too fine a point on its subject matter, Runner Runner feels like a safe bet for its filmmakers. But thankfully, smart playing on their part makes it a safe one for audiences as well.
Runner Runner opens today nationwide.