Even though the movie deals from a stacked deck of beachfront posh, curvaceous babes, glitzy casinos and a name cast that includes Ben Affeck between his Oscar win and Bruce Wayne, “Runner Runner” is little more than an amiable crime thriller involving Internet gambling.
Brian Koppelman and David Levien’s script plays more like an early draft that still lacks the nuts ‘n’ bolts crime and nervy thrills, not to mention more clarity and complexity in the writing of the only four characters that seem to matter.
For a movie about con men, there really needs to be more of a con.
Nevertheless, director Brad Furman establishes a brisk pace and gets efficient performances from Affleck, Justin Timberlake, British actress Gemma Arterton and Anthony Mackie.
Timberlake plays Richie, a refugee from Walt Street wiped out in the financial meltdown and striving for a second chance via a degree from Princeton grad school.
That he’s paying for his tuition by hustling fellow students for an online poker company shows this apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree of his deadbeat gambler-father (John Heard in a minor role).
When he loses his savings on an all-or-nothing round of online poker, he grows convinced he’s been cheated by the site. This is backed up by a fellow student and mathematician who figures out that the odds against the circumstances of his loss are nearly impossible.
Well, what does one expect from the unregulated site run out of Costa Rica? Yet despite his experiences on Wall Street and with his dad, Richie is incredibly naive: He insists the site’s jet-setting CEO Ivan Bock (Affleck) must somehow be unaware of the crooked nature of his own site.
So Richie flies down to San Jose to tell the man. Despite the fact no one supposedly can get an audience with the Ivan the great, after a series of coincidences and implausibilities Richie manages to confront Ivan himself with his facts.
Ivan says thank you very much, shoos him away, then invites him back the next day and offers him a job — in fact, all but gives him the keys to the kingdom. And this doesn’t arouse Richie’s suspicions in the slightest.
And so it goes with this strange protagonist who wobbles between unbelievable naivety and a hustler’s smarts. Even when an FBI agent (Mackie) kidnaps Richie and demonstrates that his boss is a crook, Riche still doesn’t believe it.
Maybe he sticks around because of the allure of Ivan’s COO and main squeeze, Rebecca (Arterton), who’s not above flirting with the help. Even the fact that Ivan sends him on an errand that leads to a severe beating doesn’t faze him as it should.
Eventually it’s all too clear his boss is running a crime organization so Richie puts a grand payback scheme into action. And here the script really comes unglued. For all the back room meetings and bribes the only real con is on an audience expecting much more from this Princeton whiz kid.
The roles are meant to contain a degree of ambivalence but tend instead toward vagueness. And in Richie toward mental dullness. What takes him so long to figure out what the audience knows instantly?
Then there’s Arterton’s temptress. Is she easily seduced by glamour and riches or really just a good girl a little over her head? The movie seems to want to have it both ways. Even Mackie’s FBI guy acts more like a crook than a cop.
Which leaves the film’s actors with little to play beyond the surfaces of their roles. Affleck comes off the best since you never doubt what motivates his character. The actor definitely looks like he’s having fun.
Timberlake is solid but unremarkable. He doesn’t drive this movie the way he, as its lead, should. Arterton looks great but doesn’t have much else to do. Mackie looks angry and that’s about all he’s asked to do as well.
The country of Costa Rica (played by Puerto Rico) is portrayed as a banana republic whose citizens are either whores or corrupt officials. However, it is true that the country does play host to hundreds of online gambling sites due to the absence of legislation dealing with Internet gambling.
So enjoy the movie but do try to avoid Costa Rican online gambling.
Opens: October 4, 2013 (20th Century Fox)
Production companies: A New Regency/Appian Way/Double Feature Films production
Cast: Justin Timberlake, Gemma Arterton, Anthony Mackie, Ben Affleck, Michael Esper, John Heard, Ben Schwartz
Director: Brad Furman
Screenwriters: Brian Koppelman & David Levien
Producers: Arnon Milchan, Jennifer Davisson Killoran, Leonardo DiCaprio, Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher,Brian Koppelman, David Levien
Executive producers: Erik Holmberg, Brad Weston
Director of photography: Mauro Fiore
Production designer: Charisse Cardenas
Music: Christophe Beck
Costume designer: Sophie de Rakoff
Editor: Jeff McEvoy
R rating, 92 minutes