By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Runner Runner is a glossy crime thriller about an online gambling empire that bluffs its way through as a halfhearted cautionary tale.
Justin Timberlake plays Richie Furst, a Princeton graduate student whose Wall Street career was short-circuited by the financial meltdown of 2008.
Currently he’s doing a lot more online poker playing than studying, but using his winnings to pay for school.
When the dean steps in and calls a halt to Richie’s financial maneuvering, he feels forced to gamble his tuition money on a round of online Texas Hold ‘Em.
He loses, but determines that he’s been swindled.
So the young, cash-strapped gambler investigates and learns that the poker website is hosted by a gambling kingpin in Costa Rica, where he proceeds to go with the intention of confronting the corrupt tycoon in charge.
That would be Ivan Block, played by Ben Affleck, the opulent CEO who owns the offshore gambling operation and is referred to as the “Wizard of Odds.” He sees Richie as a kindred spirit and not only does he pay him back, he recruits him as an assistant and protégé to his mentor, one who will amass great wealth and achieve the get-rich-quick version of the American Dream if he were to (perhaps at the price of his soul) join the operation.
Gemma Arterton plays Block’s colleague and girlfriend, Rebecca, who quickly gets involved with Richie as well, instantly creating an indeterminate romantic triangle that offers precious little in the chemistry department.
And Anthony Mackie plays a persistent FBI agent who is after Richie -– Furst things first — to help him block Block.
Director Brad Furman (The Lincoln Lawyer) — working from a flashy but decidedly sketchy, implausible screenplay about temptation, excess, and greed by Brian Koppelman and David Levien (who also wrote the 1998 Matt Damon-starring poker flick, Rounders) and with Leonardo DiCaprio as one of his ten producers –- piles on the slickly handsome and alluring setups but fails to conjure the urgency that would make Richie’s predicament something we’re convinced by or emotionally invested in.
We’re just not pulled into this come-hither but unsavory, high-stakes world the way Richie is.
Which means that the title, which refers to a pair of cards that significantly improve or complete a strong poker hand, tells you the film’s problem: it’s still a card or two short of what it needs for a persuasive and satisfying resolution.
Timberlake and Affleck, with their entertainingly snappy patter, are at the very least competent in their roles, but Arterton, in an underwritten role, brings little to the table other than eye candy.
This is a film that seems to lose interest in its own subject early on, and needs a lot more in the way of revenge-soaked tension or cerebral intrigue to deliver a payoff that lives up to its promising narrative setup.
So we’ll display a poker face of 2 stars out of 4 for this stylish but skin-deep and suspense-less gambling thriller. Runner Runner isn’t exactly a flop, but its house is anything but full.