What’s this? Justin Timberlake in a lead role? Ben Affleck playing a villain? How rare? Note that that isn’t sarcasm because those are actually both rare occurrences. Quite refreshing to see someone willing to take a chance like that. Especially as it kinda makes sense. Affleck comes across as an insufferable dick in 90% of what he’s in so making him the villain is a good idea. And, dammit, Timberlake is just so gosh darn charming. He should be a lead. So, does that risk pay off in Runner Runner? Well… click the link to go all in!
Runner Runner follows Richie Furst (Justin Timberlake), a poker affiliate and gifted risk taking financial genius, who he uncovers some dodgy goings on in a poker website. When he discovers the site is set up to not allow anyone as good as him from winning too much he heads off to Costa Rica to confront the website’s owner Ivan Block (Ben Affleck). Block thanks Furst for uncovering an issue with his site that he blames on some of his developers and offers Furst a job with the promise of earning millions in no time at all. At first… erm… Furst believes he has struck gold but a run in with FBI agent Shavers (Anthony Mackie) gives Furst cause for concern that his boss may be involved in some pretty shady dealings. Soon after he finds himself torn between the boss that’s making his dreams come true and the possibility that he may never be able to leave Costa Rica if he doesn’t assist in the FBI investigation.
The first 10 minutes of the film rush by at a ridiculously fast pace. Within 10 minutes Furst has been introduced hastily as a Poker affiliate, someone that helps bring new players into Poker site, carrying all this work out at Princeton where he’s trying to earn a degree after failing to make it on Wall Street. He’s brought to the Dean’s office and told in no uncertain terms that he must stop this activity or be kicked out. Furst hasn’t got enough money to pay his tuition fees so he uses his smarts to try to win what he needs on a poker site. He loses the money after being conned by planted players and then heads to Costa Rica. That’s in 10 minutes and I think I skipped a couple of scenes. This doesn’t give you much time to learn about Furst as a human being. We know what he does and why but we don’t know who he is. He has drive, doesn’t like to lose and he has issues with his gambling addict father. That’s just enough to get us on our way with the character but not quite enough for us to be invested just yet. This becomes a problem that appears throughout the film.
The characters in the film are almost entirely defined by what they do for a living and not who they are as people. We know who’s good and bad as the film progresses but each character has one singular role that they serve and little in the way of character. They don’t conflict in meaningful ways beyond the gradual escalation of the scenarios. Furst is never seen struggling with a dubious act of blackmail he uses to get a client for Block. He does little investigation into Block of his own, usually being handed information by other characters that come and go at will. Block turns up, acts a little slimier in each progressive scene like his moral compass is on a gradient. Gemma Arterton’s love interest character, Rebecca, spends all of 5 seconds showing concern over which man she should be with. She’s practically there for two reasons. To show Furst has a case of the not gays and to be a prize he can keep at the end.
To add to this a couple of characters plain vanish with no conclusion. Furst’s friend Andrew Cronin (Oliver Cooper) is taken by Block’s men but we never what happened. We’re just given a throwaway line that he was found beaten. Furst’s father has had his debts paid off by Block and is living in a hotel also paid for by Block as a potential target that he’ll hurt if Furst doesn’t play along. And he’s not brought up once the final act gets going. This is largely down to the film trying to cram too many threads into a 91 minute runtime. There’s no room for character’s be allowed to breath and for all stories to wrap up.
This all said Runner Runner at least manages to weave an interesting spin on the in deep with the mob story trope. That 91 minute runtime forces forward progression to always be made and there’s really no sequences that could be considered dull. Timberlake is actually pretty decent working with what little he has to work with in Furst as a character. Although I don’t get why he couldn’t have just danced his way out of every situation. Affleck manages to be as irritating as ever. There’s something incredibly smug and smarmy about him. Thankfully that’s key to his role here. So that worked out well. Gemma Arterton may as well be a clothes horse though and Anthony Mackie maybe steers a little too close towards the typical streetwise black cop archetype.
One element that I did find a bit troubling, and I’m pretty sure this isn’t a result of watching the Feminist Frequency videos, is the worrying depiction of women. Arterton’s Rebecca is literally the only woman with a speaking role. The first woman you see has no face (as in head out of shot) and is seen rubbing Furst’s shoulders as he’s being all attractive while winning at Poker. Every other woman in the film is scantily clad and shown as being some sort of sex object that men get as a reward for being sexy gamblers and criminals. Rebecca is shown about 5 times walking towards the camera in a designer dress. This all has a worrying tone that depicts women as things to be ogled only.
Director Brad Furman isn’t too bad a young talent. I’ve not seen his other work but his command of the camera work is quite commendable. It’s probably the film’s strongest aspect. He likes his perspective drawing shots of long rooms and parallel lines. It would be fair to say that Runner Runner is a pretty well shot film. Maybe not visually interesting, but it at least looks better than a lot of films these days that heavily rely on very basic visuals under the misguided belief that making the shot too rich would distract somehow. I do get the impression that he’s had some of the film cut down from it’s original runtime and as such the film’s focus is pulled entirely towards the mystery and not the people. Hopefully this doesn’t reflect too badly on any future work he does.
Overall Runner Runner manages to be a pretty by the numbers thriller that has a enough working that fans of Timberlake and Affleck may enjoy the film. They certainly do their jobs as well as you’d hope. It just feels as though it’s been chopped apart and that compromises were made along the way to get the film into that 91 minute runtime that’ll allow and extra screening each night. The trouble is that when the film only just manages to be decent enough to not suck entirely they probably won’t be needing that extra screening slot. The film isn’t a disaster but it’s lacking key elements. The thriller plot isn’t strong enough on it’s own and the character’s aren’t given a chance to shine. As such Runner Runner is a tough film to recommend. You could do much much worse though. I saw a trailer for something called Baggage Claim before this… oh boy.
Hey, my next review is review 250! My milestone reviews are usually something a little bit crappy. Come back early next week to see what pile of shit I’m reviewing!!!