Runner Runner Justin Timberlake, Ben Affleck, Gemma Arterton. Directed by Brad Furman. Rated R. Opens Friday.
In Texas Hold ’em, a player who makes an improbable winning hand using the last two board cards dealt is said to have gone “runner runner.” It’s an unfortunately ironic title for this tepid gambling-world thriller, which collapses further in the home stretch rather than beating the (considerable) odds to triumph.
Early on, the film makes a valiant but futile attempt to derive excitement from online poker, as Princeton grad student and mathematical prodigy Richie Furst (Justin Timberlake) loses all of his tuition money over the course of one session, in a way so statistically improbable that it all but guarantees he’s been swindled. As any broke college kid surely would, Richie flies to Costa Rica to confront the site’s CEO, Ivan Block (Ben Affleck), only to have the impressed suit offer him a wildly lucrative job. If the pet crocodiles Block keeps in his backyard aren’t an indication that all isn’t well in this tropical paradise, however, the pesky FBI agent (Anthony Mackie) insisting that Richie dig up some dirt on his employer certainly is.
Runner Runner was written by Brian Koppelman and David Levien, the team responsible for Rounders; they know their stuff, so they’re well aware that the actual criminal activity engaged in by sites like Full Tilt Poker was far too mundane to fuel a popcorn movie like this one. (Writing yourself a check using funds deposited by players isn’t terribly cinematic.) Unfortunately, they’ve raised the stakes using an utterly generic template—when, for example, Gemma Arterton is introduced as Block’s woman (“girlfriend” would falsely suggest that she’s not a possession), she might as well come out and say, “Nice to meet you, Richie; I look forward to our inevitable dangerous liaison.” Having no real suspense to work with, director Brad Furman (The Lincoln Lawyer) fills the screen with conspicuous consumption—huge yachts, lavish houses, wild parties—as if the mere sight of wealth, combined with manic camera moves, will get pulses racing. And the last two cards don’t help: When Richie finally turns the tables on Block, it’s via a scheme so tediously complicated that it belongs in an Excel spreadsheet.