Runner, Runner (available now on Digital Download, and on Blu-ray January 7th) is a slick film that isn’t too original, but it’s worth seeing for the acting of Ben Affleck. Remember when he was the whipping boy of American cinema. Didn’t matter what he was in, everyone bagged on the guy. Hollywoodland began his career resurrection and the three films he’s directed (including last year’s Academy Award Best Picture, Argo) have made him the Golden Boy of Tinsel town – or is it Tinsel Boy? Anyway, Affleck turns in a great performance in Runner, Runner. As the film’s protagonist, Ivan Block, he gives a layered performance that is full of equal parts charm and menace. Whenever Affleck is on screen, he’s riveting.
Alas, Affleck isn’t the star of Runner, Runner. That honor goes to the multi-talented Justin Timberlake, JT plays grad student, Richie Furst, a Princeton man who loses all of his savings to an off share online gambling site owned by Ivan. When Richie learns that he was cheated out of his money, he somehow finds money (credit cards, I guess) to fly to Costa Rica, where Ivan has taken exile because the FEDs will arrest him if he steps on U.S. soil. Since the online poker site is operated out of Costa Rica, Richie assumes he can just flash his million dollar smile and waltz into a meeting with one of the world’s most exclusive and richest men. This being a movie, he assumes correctly.
When Richie confronts Ivan about getting cheated, Ivan is impressed with Richie’s ball size and hires him to be his right hand man, running everything about the gambling site, from the handling of the money all the way down to the computer techs. It doesn’t take long before a) Richie falls for Ivan’s girl, b) Richie realizes that Ivan is no good, c) The FEDs pressure Richie into word cooperating, d) Richie’s dead-beat gambling addicted dad gets used as blackmail, and e) Richie has to find a way to outsmart everyone.
Runner, Runner was written by Brian Koppleman and DaviedLevien, who wrote two other poker centric projects: the 1998 Matt Damon/Edward Norton film, Rounders, and the short-lived FX series Tilt. The opening scenes of Runner, Runner, with Richie putting it all on the line sure feel familiar, that’s for sure. Then again, the whole movie feels a little too familiar, with shades of Wall Street, Casino (especially Casino) and Ocean’s Thirteen (which Koppleman and Levien also wrote) all over the movie. Brad Furman, the director, does his best to cram everything the writers have concocted into a short running time. If the film feels rushed at times, it’s because there’s not enough space for the film to breath.
Gemma Arterton has the thankless role of “gorgeous woman Richie lusts after.” No offense to Arterton, she’s a fine actress, but the role is so underwritten that anyone could have played the part. As for Timberlake, he’s suitable in the part, but I never felt like he owned the role. You know the ease in which he commands the center mic when he’s singing and entertaining a live audience? I never feel that in Runner, Runner. As with most of his dramatic roles, he’s trying REALLY HARD to be a serious actor, so much so that his line delivery is sometimes forced. I’m still waiting for him to have that one role that captures the charm and charisma he has when he’s singing or screwing around with Jimmy Fallon or Andy Samberg. Mind you, he’s improved so much over the years; check out Open Road, a film he made with Jeff Bridges if you want to see how far he’s progressed. Runner, Runner does give him opportunities to shine, although they are limited.
It’s funny, early in Affleck’s career he had a similar problem. After Good Will Hunting, he kind of became a one-note actor. Only after he suffered some failures did he seem to master his craft. Not that I want Timberlake (or anyone) to fail. But he could learn something from Affleck, starting with choosing better material. Runner, Runner is fine for an afternoon with the TV on in the background, but it’s not significant enough (other than Affleck) to warrant more than one viewing.