Brad Furman gained some plaudits for making The Lincoln Lawyer (2011) the kind of twisty but grounded thriller Hollywood used to make a lot of. Runner Runner, his latest, might have stood a shot of gaining similar cred, but this movie comes across as if somebody edited it with a chainsaw. Hunks of narrative, character development, and the kinds of scenes required to coherently build situations and suspense seem to have been casually cleaved out and left in a bus station somewhere by the assistant editor, and voiceovers are used to paper over the cracks. All this seems less for the sake speeding up the movie, out of respect for the audience’s posteriors, than contempt for their attention spans, and this is one of many modern films that seems puzzled over just what we viewers are going to find interesting. The result has something of the attenuated sufficiency of an old B-movie, but lacks the pithiness, clarity, and individuality so many of those had. Miscasting and lazy writing don’t help much either, in a film that aims to combine the Faustian plots of Wall Street (1987) and The Firm (1993) with dashes of gambling thrillers like Rounders (1998) and the unabashed dolce vita porn popularised by the likes of the Fast and Furious films. But Runner Runner proves that flashy photography and vulgar displays of wealth aren’t key cinematic values. Justin Timberlake’s voice, the personal attribute that made him famous, is his greatest liability trying to convincingly inhabit the role of a blue-collar Stanford student, Richie Furst, smouldering over a confused upbringing by a gambler father (John Heard) and a failed youthful tilt at get-rich-quick economics curtailed by the Global Financial Crisis. The lean, showman's poise that Timberlake has offered in some of his music videos and the humour of his performance in The Social Network (2010) desert him here in a square and dully lumpen antihero part.
Forbidden from recruiting fellow students for online gaming by the Dean (the inevitable Bob Gunton), Richie, who’s been paying his way through commissions from sign-ups, decides to bet his savings on the popular Midnight Black poker site. He loses big, but realises he was cheated. He flies to the site’s base in Costa Rica to alert online gaming kingpin Ivan Block. Block is played by Ben Affleck, in a performance where it’s hard to tell if the louche insolence he projects is for receiving a pay cheque for barely batting an eyebrow, or if he’s aiming for that deliberately as characterisation. Gemma Arterton plays his business partner, and former lover, in the first performance of Arterton’s career (yes, including Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, 2010) where she seems completely unsure what she’s doing in a film, batting eyelids at Timberlake in a romantic subplot that can’t go anywhere because it isn’t even somewhere to begin with. Richie falls for Block’s explanation of, and apology for, the cheat, and accepts his offer of a lucrative job. Soon he’s being beaten up by a honcho’s goons for bringing too small a payoff and asked to blackmail rival bookmakers into compliance with Block’s program. The narrative then becomes a matter of cramming in as many party scenes shot like imported beer commercials with underwear models, recessed lighting, Latin dance music, and shiny, shiny liquor bottles, before the inevitable switchback where Richie realises he’s been used as a sucker can play out.
An early scene depicts Block in a steam bath, trying to make a couple of US Senators happy whilst delivering half-hearted self-defences and convivial hostly promises of satisfying debaucheries, his attitude at once casually diplomatic but slightly, suggestively cynical. Here Runner Runner suggests it wants to be a study in the ambiguity of a modern tycoon who dislikes his quasi-illicit means of staying on top, and gets the kicks of an emotional vampire out of corrupting others. But the film jettisons ambiguity soon enough as Block feeds rivals to alligators, and generally proves himself sufficiently swinish to justify a cool takedown from his rebellious patsy, in one of those “clever” last acts that play out like very elaborate games of three-card Monte. Meanwhile a lot of aspersions are cast on the honesty of Costa Rica’s bureaucrats and on the ethics of the FBI. Block is shaken down by smarmy and violently corrupt gaming commissioner, Herrera (Yul Vazquez), whilst Anthony Mackie plays another of his thankless recent roles as Agent Shavers, gunning for Block and ready to use anyone in any way to get his result. He leans heavily on Richie and Richie’s pal Cronin (Oliver Cooper) for inside intel, and they discover that Midnight Black is in fact a giant Ponzi scheme. Mackie gets the film’s best line (a relative concept) when he tells Richie he loves the idea of busting a Stanford man because he went to Rutgers, but Shavers is shifted arbitrarily from the good guy column to the bad and back, sometimes within scenes, according to the specific juice the filmmakers want to squeeze from proceedings. Mauro Fiore’s cinematography, often bathed in amber hues as if he managed to pickle his lenses in rum, imbues the film’s strong production and gaudy visions of neo-Roman excess with an aptly colourful decadence, and Heard’s veteran class is apparent as his character confesses to his failings and his awareness that he’s been brought to Costa Rica essentially as hostage to ensure Richie’s compliance. But massive holes in storyline and storytelling and Timberlake’s fuzzy lead performance doom the film to major mediocrity.