For a number of reasons, Runner Runner plays somewhat like a thriller that has escaped from 2003 to the present day. Aside from having the ring of a Ben Affleck film from around that time, it just feels like the kind of film that should be circulating on Five or one of its digital channels by now.
Richie Furst (Justin Timberlake) is pulling marketing duties for online casinos to help pay for his Masters’ degree in finance at Princeton University. With a tuition fee repayment looming, he goes all in and loses, gambling on a site called Midnight Black.
When he discovers evidence that the game was programmed against him, he heads to Costa Rica to confront the site’s founder, Ivan Block (Affleck). Block pays him back, and even takes him under his wing, promising him a seven-figure fortune in his first 18 months of employment. With the FBI snapping at his heels, Richie finds himself in over his head, especially when he realises the true extent of Block’s corruption.
Aside from seeming immediately dated and old-hat, it’s tempting to think that Runner Runner might have been made as some kind of tax thing. The film even inadvertently put that idea in my head by having Block live in Costa Rica, far away from American jurisdiction and financial administration. It certainly has precious few other ideas to offer.
At a certain point in the paradoxically long 91-minute running time, it becomes conceivable to think that some Max Bialystock-style producer is behind this, except that it doesn’t have the good grace to be interestingly bad. Creatively speaking, the whole thing feels dead on arrival.
Justin Timberlake and Ben Affleck seem like a mismatched pair of leads, even to look at the posters and trailers, but there’s even less tension between them as colleagues turned adversaries in the final film. Both actors have taken some flak and proven their mettle over time, but Runner Runner is, in one package, enough fodder to power their detractors for some time.
It’s not like Timberlake has a whole lot to work with: Richie is an unapologetically unlikeable sort, who’s supposed to be sympathetic on the sole basis of having lost money in a Wall Street venture. It’s cool though, because he’s trying to work his way back up by manipulating other students into squandering their money on online gambling, so that’s okay.
He’s also wholly unsuitable for any voice-over work; divorced from his on-screen charisma, his narration plays like a nasally-delivered catalogue of gambling plays and practices, most of which are included by the virtue of having the slightest symbolism within this non-story.
If nothing else, Affleck has phoned in a few hours’ practice for playing Bruce Wayne. His Block is a brash, charismatic billionaire, and even if his more villainous moments only make for a few meagre highlights, he’s not bad in the film. Those who are annoyed that he’s playing Batman may not be assuaged, but they can’t criticise his acting as much as his choice of project this time around.
The other highlights come from Anthony Mackie as a dogged but impotent FBI agent who’s given to intimidation tactics on potential informants, but he doesn’t get enough to do. The most depressing part is Gemma Arterton’s role as Block’s moll – this is the kind of empty character she was playing five years ago, but she’s since proven, over and over again, that she’s better than roles like this.
The biggest problem with the film is that there is no tension in it whatsoever. Block is not an intimidating villain, despite the most remote efforts to make him seem like a Bond villain – a scene in which he threatens to feed an associate to crocodiles doesn’t make him any more frightening, because he’s not the one who’s chewing anything, (except maybe a bit of scenery).
Despite some pretty scenery and a cast that’s capable of much better, Runner Runner is a rote, crayon-by-numbers thriller. It’s a patchwork of uninteresting scenes, clumsily stitched together with some truly unfortunate narration from Timberlake, and you’ll likely have forgotten about it before the end credits start rolling.
Runner Runner is out in UK cinemas now.
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