Runner Runner isn't a poker movie. You'll think it's a poker movie from the trailers and the synopsis and the marketing, but there's no actual poker to be found. It's not about gambling, strategy, or the actual struggles of gambling addiction. It's not a movie about proper organized crime, clever deception, a decent plot twist...at 91 minutes, it's not long enough to flesh out anything into more than a one-dimensional tale where you're told everything and shown nothing. They sure did make a pretty trailer for it though, didn't they?
Justin Timberlake plays college math wiz Richie Furst, in a casting that's about as believable as Denise Richards playing a nuclear physicist in The World Is Not Enough. How do we know he's a math wiz? Because he looks at a computer screen and tells the audience someone cheated him in online poker using standard deviation. Remember that scene in Take Me Home Tonight where Topher Grace's character does the math on currency exchanges between a half-dozen countries to figure out how much someone could make off some Yen by moving it around a little? That was more credible. Well, Richie's meddling in recruiting other students to play online poker for real money gets him in hot water with the university's dean and he's given the choice to either stop everything or be kicked out of school. Okay, sure.
He jet-sets off to Costa Rica on some whim that if he squeals that someone cheated to the poker site's owner, he'll get some sort of benevolent finder's fee that will pay off his college expenses. I have no idea how this script got greenlit.
We're told that nobody gains an audience with Ivan Block (Ben Affleck), the man whom Richie seeks to pay for his sorrows, yet somehow within 48 hours of setting foot in Costa Rica, he has a private date with this reclusive elitist on his yacht, all because he showed some notes scrawled in invisible ink on a couple pieces of paper to a security camera. What?
Pretty soon he joins the biz and is banging Block's old flame and business partner Rebecca (Gemma Arterton). There's a scene where Ivan notices Richie and Rebecca are walking together at a party, and he seems like he might be disapproving of it, but we can't tell because Affleck is as emotive as a plank of wood. Fortunately, in the next scene they clear it up with Ivan telling Rebecca she can do whatever she wants. Again, it was hard to tell if he was being literal or passive-aggressive because inflection is hard for these actors. Despite being surrounded by scores of hot, available, utterly willing, completely objectified women, Richie and Rebecca of course end up together because, I mean, why not? They have no chemistry, her character is completely throwaway and untrustworthy, and there's never a point where she ever clearly chooses or alters her alliances in the movie. She doesn't seduce Richie or manipulate him to any particular end or do anything else meaningful for the story. She's just sort of there for Richie to put his mouth on.
The most hilarious moments are when Ivan tries to be threatening or ominous. I think he's trying because that's what the moment and the scene are framed to do, but he just falls flat on his face at being much more than cardboard with a smiley face drawn on it. No one can seriously call this a "thriller" with a straight face.
It starts out limp but with potential to follow the math and odds angle of playing poker, or maybe face down the devil of gambling addiction by introducing John Heard as Richie's indebted but recovering father, or try to show us the ugly side of organized crime a la Savages. It doesn't go anywhere you hope it will go. Saying it goes anywhere at all is optimistic at best. The performances are watered down by the tepid script, and what little tension and intrigue it has at the beginning just dies off more and more as things progress, ending with a largely anti-climactic quasi-twist involving FBI agent Shavers (Anthony Mackie), whom we saw sporadically throughout the story, delivering his "You have to help us bust this guy" lines as if he were reading them straight off a list of FBI-agent stereotypes at the expected points in the story.
On the upside, the Blu-ray captures every palm tree and tropical sunset in all their high resolution glory. The audio is decent and there are 15 (just count them!) separate tracks worth of subtitles if you want to read along in your native tongue. However, the included extras don't bolster the package much -- you get some deleted scenes and a 17-minute featurette on the growth of online poker.
There's not enough here to recommend seeing Runner Runner. It's too short, too underdeveloped, and too dull. To get a fix of what this could have been, instead go see Rounders, Casino, Savages, The Sting, Indecent Proposal, Confidence, Swordfish, or Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels.