Mark Reviews Movies

Runner Runner


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Brad Furman

Cast: Justin Timberlake, Ben Affleck, Gemma Arterton, Anthony Mackie, Michael Esper, Oliver Cooper, Christian George, Yul Vazquez, John Heard

MPAA Rating: R (for language and some sexual content)

Running Time: 1:31

Release Date: 10/4/13

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Review by Mark Dujsik | October 4, 2013

Runner Runner presents us with a familiar but still somewhat fascinating world where ill-gotten gains provide a variety of luxuries. Anything one wants is there for taking, and it's all set against the backdrop of the corrupt, tropical paradise of Costa Rica, which should be the third clue that something is amiss with this world. The first, of course, is that the movie has already established its shaky moral center while the protagonist is at Princeton University, trying to pay his tuition by receiving compensation from various gambling websites for getting his fellow students and his professors to lose all of their money at those sites. He's threatened with expulsion, and when he tries to win the money on his own in an online poker room, he loses it all.

Gambling is easy, but winning is hard. There are repercussions to losing and all the obvious things that don't need our gambling aficionado of a hero to explain in order to understand. It may seem alluring, but it's just bad business unless one knows what he or she is doing. Even then, our down-on-his-luck protagonist proves, it's just a matter of luck. His luck turns bad because he chose a website where cheaters prowl. One wonders what message the movie would have delivered had he picked a site that isn't owned by an American expatriate on the run from the law in Costa Rica, but then again, we're not really sure what the message is with him choosing the poker program he does and losing everything as a result.

The second clue that things are not all that they seem is that fugitive and international criminal. His picture appears briefly in the opening montage with the caption "King of Online Poker," and then we don't see him again until he's in his adopted homeland, bribing a couple of local legislators with massages that will end very happily for them. He puts his exile on par with that of Napoleon but only in order to make himself the more honorable man. After all, Napoleon admitted that the only things he really missed about France were women and Paris. What Ivan Block (Ben Affleck) misses is freedom.

It's safe to say that Block is the most appealing character here, and that's intentional.  It's the smooth-talking persuasion about the seduction of power that always gets characters when they're confronted with the Devil. He has a long list of crimes attached to him, dutifully read just so we're aware of them: extortion, bribery, money laundering, a Ponzi scheme in the form of an online poker program, etc. The movie makes a bold statement: Those things are illegal.

Note, though, that the screenplay by Brian Koppelman and David Levien doesn't say they are bad things. After all, look at Block's lifestyle. Admire all the neat stuff he possesses because of it—the power he holds over so many people.

Richie Furst (Justin Timberlake) certainly does. He's the Princeton student who gets cheated out of all of his money and takes a trip down to a gambling convention in Costa Rica (What money does he use to get there?) to confront Block about the security failure of his website. Block off-handedly thanks him and later offers him a seven-figure job to work for his company. The actual job is vague, but it does involve one scene in which he, under Block's orders, sends a man, whose company Block wants to buy, on a yacht with a bevy of beauties in bikinis with the expectation that the man's libido will override his better judgment.

Now, here's the important thing: Richie doesn't have a problem with any of this. He's more than happy to go along with whatever Block throws at him because the alternative isn't as appealing. He receives wads of cash as a bonus. He flirts with Block's lovely assistant Rebecca (Gemma Arterton). Everything is good. Richie doesn't even blink when an FBI agent named Shavers (Anthony Mackie) tells him how crooked Block is. It's only when Block decides to show his new employee that he has power over him that Richie determines it's time to get out of the situation, and he does it by means that Block would probably admire if it weren't hurting him—skimming money off bribes to government officials to bribe other officials to have loyalty to Richie.

The movie spends plenty of time building up the sway of the life Block offers, but it completely ignores the entire focus of the third act, which is Richie's plan to escape. Runner Runner turns into a series of "by the way" moments that explain everything Richie is accomplishing or has accomplished without giving us a chance to see it firsthand.

Copyright © 2013 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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