Runner Runner: Justin Timberlake Draws a Bad Hand

runner-runner

Photo courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Runner Runner” could have been a small-classic caper movie. It has a cast (Justin Timberlake, Ben Affleck, Anthony Mackie) that looks solid on paper, and its tropical setting and flourishes of Bondian villainy (there’s a pool full of hungry crocodiles) promise colorful popcorn adventure. Unfortunately, the movie lacks snap — it lumbers at times — and the actors don’t quite jell. There’s also a too-cute ending that’s brazenly implausible.

Timberlake is Richie Furst, a gambler’s son who’s financing a Princeton master’s degree by running an online gambling site for fellow students. When the dean shuts down this lucrative operation, Richie, desperate for tuition money, decides to wager all of his savings — $17,000 — in an Internet poker game. This should be a breeze — Richie’s a Texas Hold ’em hotshot — but he loses everything. He realizes he’s been cheated and decides to take the evidence directly to Ivan Block (Affleck), the online gambling mogul who runs the site on which Richie was swindled.

Block is headquartered in Costa Rica, which is portrayed here as a festering pit of political corruption (possibly why the movie was actually shot in Puerto Rico). Richie arrives just in time for Block’s annual party for his worldwide affiliates, a predictably gaudy bacchanal heavy with top-shelf booze and luscious bikini babes. Richie confronts Block, who seems at first like a nice guy. He agrees to refund Richie’s money and also dangles a job offer: Come to work for him and start pulling down a $7 million annual salary. Richie takes the bait.

Block isn’t a nice guy, of course; he’s a vicious hood. And his situation in Costa Rica is becoming tenuous. The powers that be — those that aren’t on his payroll — have decided that his skeezy doings are giving their country a bad name (although surely no worse than this movie does). So with the help of his brainy/beautiful girlfriend, Rebecca (Gemma Arterton), he has devised an escape plan. To pull it off, he needs a fall guy to do a few decades in a stateside prison for him. Guess who that is.

Richie soon finds himself caught between Block’s thugs and an FBI agent named Shavers (Mackie, giving the movie’s liveliest performance). Shavers wants Richie to become his informant inside Block’s organization. This turns out to involve much heavy menacing, considerable gunplay and one bloody beat-down. Having secretly scored with Rebecca, he recruits her to help out with an escape scheme of his own.

Unfortunately, Arterton’s Rebecca is a thoroughly inscrutable character. Her is-she-or-isn’t-she maneuverings are meant to be tantalizing, but she doesn’t read as a person, and her ambiguity becomes an annoyance. Affleck is miscast. He’s too personable an actor to be convincing as an amoral scumbag, especially when the crocodiles gather to make acquaintance with a stooge who’s fallen into disfavor. And Timberlake’s natural charisma is wasted on a monochromatic character that could have used a few colorful quirks (perhaps of the shaken-not-stirred variety). The script, by Brian Koppelman and David Levien (who also wrote the fine Michael Douglas film “Solitary Man”), provides a serviceable armature for a tight little double-cross flick, but director Brad Furman (“The Lincoln Lawyer”) has failed to punch it up or smooth it out. And the financial machinations at the heart of the story never seem especially likely. By the end of the movie, you might feel swindled yourself.

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Chuck Briese, Oak Ridge Now

[avatar user="cbriese" size="thumbnail" align="left"] Chuck Briese has been a resident of South Montgomery County since 1988. He and his lovely and patient wife, Leslie, have six sons, with only one left to finish high school. Chuck has been a Cub Scout leader, a Little League baseball coach, a church youth leader, and a general troublemaker over the course of the past 25 years. He is obsessed with his lawn, and likes restaurants that serve food that fills up the plate. He has a tendency to tilt at windmills, which may explain why he started Oak Ridge Now.

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