Runner Runner is talking loud and saying nothing, and to think it’s only 91 minutes long and feels as if it’s three hours doesn’t help. Even worse is how good this film could have been and how great Ben Affleck is at slow-playing not only Justin Timberlake‘s character, but the audience as well. There’s a lot of smarts behind the screenplay, perhaps too much, and director Brad Furman (The Lincoln Lawyer) knows what he’s doing when it comes to developing his characters and playing the audience, but it ultimately becomes less a thriller and more a waiting game and a boring one at that. The only spark of life the film ever has is to watch Affleck’s character slowly turn from a welcoming mentor to an alligator obsessed overlord. Too bad when I say “slowly” I mean slooooooooooowly.
Using voice over, Timberlake introduces us to his character, Richie Furst, a Princeton grad student promoting online gambling at school and using the commission to pay his tuition until he’s called out by the Dean and told to stop immediately or say “bye, bye, bye” to his days as a Princeton student. Being one of those “all or nothing” kind of characters who needs to crash and burn in order to advance the plot, Richie empties his $17,000 worth of savings into an online gambling account and ultimately loses all of it only to learn he was cheated.
The owner of the site that cheated him, Ivan Block (Affleck), is wanted by the FBI for some illegal activity as he lives in the lap of luxury in Costa Rica where he can’t be touched. Knowing of Block, Richie sees his recent embarrassment as an opportunity to get in Ivan’s good graces. He could call out his site for cheating him publicly, but believes if he takes it to Block personally, perhaps it could get him a little further ahead. It does.
Ivan appears to welcome Richie into his good graces, offers him a job, uses his talents for his own gain all the while we know the other shoe must drop. It’s just a matter of when.
Despite the awful character name, Affleck does well in the role as it’s the only character in the film with any kind of arc. Timberlake’s Richie is too dull to care much about. He’s obviously got the smarts and he’s using them to advance his “career”, but by the time the story must take it’s turn and begin moving things along we don’t care enough about Richie or his plight. I kept thinking of how Jacques Audiard developed his protagonist in A Prophet, slowly getting him deeper and deeper into the shit before suddenly he was the man to be feared. Runner Runner isn’t looking to end in such a dark fashion (in fact, they wasted the R-rating entirely), but it also has none of the intrigue or nuance either, creating a half-sympathetic character who can’t see the forest for the trees. By the time he does begin taking matters into his own hands you begin to wish he’d been doing so from the beginning, but they wanted to paint the character as more of a goody-goody rather than anything more nefarious. Too bad.
As for Gemma Arterton, she’s clearly the female eye candy of the film, adding little else to the proceedings outside of being the one to go to for tickets, whether it’s just needing to get into a party or book a couple flights. Otherwise, she serves little purpose.
Written by Rounders scribes Brian Koppelman and David Levien I expected much more from Runner Runner. The screenplay is written in much the same way as Rounders, loaded with voice over bringing us into the lead protagonist’s frame of mind, but strongly lacking in any measure of intrigue or excitement. For a thriller the film is rarely, if ever, thrilling and hardly has a pulse outside of a couple of Affleck’s scenes and Anthony Mackie as an overzealous FBI agent that grows tiresome really quickly.
Director Brad Furman impressed with The Lincoln Lawyer a couple years back, starting Matthew McConaughey on his new track of being a bonafide dramatic actor. Here he manages to do a nice job with an initial slow play of his narrative and getting the audience comfortable with a villain that would soon come back to bite Richie in the ass, but the second act is so long and drawn out the film never reaches any kind of a high, but rather flatlines to a dull and predictable end.