Runner Runner: A Beautiful Disaster

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  • By Shane Rivers

    Runner Runner, the 2013 crime thriller from director Brad Furman, currently has a 7% freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Normally, such a sub-par score would indicate a movie that should be avoided at all costs. In this case, however, it tells me that 93% of viewers were watching for all the wrong reasons.

    At first glance, Runner Runner appears to be a tepid, lifeless shell of a movie. Actually, it is a tepid, lifeless shell of a movie, but only for those seeking a quality film in the conventional sense. If you happen to be part of the so-bad-it’s-good crowd, it can still be salvaged by simply adjusting your expectations.

    This delightful bit of rubbish revolves around Richie Furst (Justin Timberlake), a former Wall Street whiz and current Princeton grad student. Our hero hits a snag early on, as he can’t rely on scholarships or wealthy relatives to cover his crushing college tuition costs.

    He manages to pay the bills by referring fellow students to gambling websites, but this doesn’t sit well with the dean (Bob Gunton). Faced with expulsion, Richie decides to try his hand at virtual Texas Hold’em, and (surprise, surprise) he winds up being a natural.

    Unfortunately, he soon goes bust on a dream hand and suspects that he was cheated. After gathering the evidence to prove it, Richie hops on a plane and heads down to Costa Rica to confront online gambling kingpin Ivan Block (Ben Affleck). The smooth-talking Block is impressed with our protagonist, offering him a “guaranteed seven figures in the first 18 months” to stick around. Naturally, Richie accepts.

    That’s when the crime thriller aspect of the movie kicks into high gear. It turns out that the Central American nation is rife with danger, including crooked cops, violent government officials and an obsessed FBI agent (Anthony Mackie). Luckily, Richie still finds time for romance, slipping between the sheets with Block’s ex-lover Rebecca Shafran (Gemma Arterton).

    Can our hero make it back to America in one piece? Will he outwit his new boss and find true love? And what about his gambling-addicted father (John Heard) who gets shipped down to Costa Rica to serve as Block’s hostage? The resolution to all these problems should be obvious to all but the most naïve of viewers.

    I got a perverse joy out of Runner Runner’s portrayal of the dangers associated with operating a real money online casino. The local gaming director swaggers about with hired goons. Hungry crocodiles are on standby to devour those who get on Ivan’s bad side. Beatings are doled out like candy, and blackmail is always a useful tool for getting gaming affiliates to fall in line.

    This is all nonsense, of course, but depicting the realities of internet gambling would make for a boring flick, indeed. It’s also unlikely that those in the industry are as photogenic as Runner Runner’s featured players.

    Speaking of which, the movie does a superb job in assembling a talented cast. This is one of the few bright spots, but it promptly leaves the performers twisting in the wind thanks to a moribund screenplay from Brian Koppelman and David Levien. This might sound like a negative, but masochistic viewers should still manage be able to spin straw into gold.

    Timberlake has made a decent transition into the acting world, but at this point he’s still rounding into shape as a thespian. The movie makes it easy on him, though, as he’s given a role that would be right at home in the Tom Cruise filmography. In short: he seems good at everything.

    Affleck, meanwhile, does the heavy lifting as the film’s antagonist. He practically oozes his way from scene to scene, but the dialogue he’s forced to recite is laugh-out-loud atrocious. Take these lines spoken to Richie, for example, which show up in all the trailers, “This is your job. You understand? Want a clear conscience, go start a charity. But if you want your own island, and your boss says you’ve got to go out there and take a beating…go out there, take it, come back to work and say, ‘Do you need me to do it again?’”

    Finally, there’s Gemma Arterton. She’s a talented actress when given half a chance (see Byzantium if you’re a fan of lesser-known horror films), but here she’s mostly required to slink about while shooting ambiguous looks at her co-stars. Her upper-class Brit accent is also on full display, making Posh Spice sound like one of Guy Ritchie’s lovable hooligans.

    Despite its many flaws, Runner Runner scores big in the visual category. This can be attributed to cinematographer Mauro Fiore, who won an Oscar for Avatar and honed his craft on projects such as Training Day and Tears of the Sun.

    On one hand, you have the postcard beauty of the Costa Rican landscape, bikini-clad babes and the opulent lifestyle of a gambling tycoon. The other hand contains a disaster filled with over-the-top performances, ridiculous dialogue and a plot that strains credulity. Combine the two and you’re got Runner Runner…a beautiful disaster.