Runner Runner contains elements that, if properly nurtured and presented, could form the basis of a compelling film noir. Unfortunately, director Brad Furman is less interested in developing characters and building tension than he is in shaking the camera whenever there’s an action scene (of which there are surprisingly few) and rushing through the narrative so egregiously that the movie seems over before it starts to get interesting. Various subplots are given short shrift and the whole thing feels more like a Cliff’s Notes version of a longer piece than an actual finished motion picture.
We’ve seen this film before. It was better when it was called Wall Street. Hell, it was even better when it was called The Boiler Room with Ben Affleck essentially playing the same role he does here. You know the story: the young hotshot gets in over his head while being tutored by a Machiavellian mentor whose ultimate goals diverge from those of his pupil. There’s a half-baked romance and some law enforcement interference. Unlike, say, Wall Street, the ending is as dumb as it is disappointing.
There’s not a lot to say about Runner Runner because the movie has low aspirations that it never rises above. Ben Affleck gets to chew on some scenery. In his big scene, he seems to be trying (with little success) to channel Alec Baldwin from Glengarry Glenn Ross. Other than that, he’s the typical wolf in sheep’s clothing. Justin Timberlake continues to intrigue with his charisma but he’s still waiting for that “plum” role. Gemma Arterton is attractive in dresses that show off her long legs but she’s criminally underused and her screen time is so limited that any chemistry she might have with Timberlake never gets a chance to manifest. Anthony Mackie doesn’t have much more to do than Arterton but at least he gets two great one-liners.
Runner Runner manages the difficult task of developing zero tension from a story that should be crackling with it. The problem is that Furman appears to be in a rush. This is no doubt partially the fault of the screenplay but there are scenes when the director bears the brunt of the responsibility. Consider, for example, a scene in which Timberlake’s Richie Furst is strongarmed into taking a boat ride with a couple of goons. We don’t know what’s awaiting him on the other side or even if he’s supposed to reach the other side. He has been courted by the Feds and has been laying groundwork for his own escape route, but does the bad guy, Affleck’s Ivan Block, recognize this? Instead of milking the trip for all the suspense it can deliver, Furman hurries through it, not giving us enough time to wonder whether Richie might be in danger before he’s out of it. This isn’t as isolated incident. When it comes to missed opportunities like this, Runner Runner is a repeat offender.
The film starts out strongly enough, with Furst at Princeton trying to earn a Master’s degree. To pay for his tuition, he has become affiliated with a few online casino sites where he gets commissions for every player he signs up. The Dean takes a dim view of this and shuts Furst down. Desperate to obtain the $60K he needs to pay for the rest of his education, he risks his entire savings in poker – and loses. When he realizes he was cheated, he takes the improbable step of flying to Costa Rica and seeking out online gambling mogul Block. At their first meeting, Furst impresses Block and the older man offers the brash kid from New Jersey a job with the promise of a seven-figure income. Who could turn that down?
Another failing of Runner Runner is that, despite providing a few tantalizing glimpses behind the curtain of online gambling, it never goes the full Casino to flesh out the setting. Perhaps that’s because the filmmakers felt it would slow down the breakneck pace. Or perhaps it’s because they didn’t do their homework. Whatever the case, it’s just another reason why Runner Runner ultimately feels hollow and incomplete.