While the conversation around the career rebound of Matthew McConaughey will continue this fall with “Dallas Buyers Club,” many forget that it was 2011’s “The Lincoln Lawyer” that gave the actor the first spring in his comeback step. On paper, it was a rather routine procedural, but it was elevated by director Brad Furman who shot it with some style and energy, and of course, McConaughey made his character leap off the page in the way few actors could. Which brings us to “Runner Runner,” a movie that once again pairs Furman with a rather standard script, and though he does his best again to inject the proceedings with some spark and aided by a strong performance from a veteran actor, it doesn’t quite graduate to the level of enjoyable pulp.
Justin Timberlake leads the picture as the (ironically?) named Richie Furst, a less cocky version of his Sean Parker from “The Social Network.” Highly educated, smart as a whip, and also butting heads with authority figures, Richie is facing expulsion from Princeton for soliciting professors and students to join an online gambling site. It’s a gig that earns him enough commissions to keep up with his tuition payments, but forced to give it up, he suddenly finds himself without a way to earn the $60,000 he needs to stay in school. The solution? Nope, he’s not taking a loan. Instead, he risks the $17,000 or so he has in the bank and go all in with a marathon session of online poker. The result? On the brink of winning what he needs, he gets hustled by the gaming site, and does what anyone would do on the brink of going broke: flies to Costa Rica in a longshot bid to try and confront the head honcho of the site to let him know that he knows the setup is rigged.
Don’t overthink it too much, and just go with it, because there will be more logic leaps you’ll have to accept as the movie goes on. Anyway, the man at the top of Midnight Black is Ivan Block (Ben Affleck), an ex-pat American whose legally grey operations keep him exiled and homesick from his native land, and his beloved Pittsburgh. Initially, Ivan brushes off Richie, but in the cold light of morning, he realizes the kid may be an asset, so not only does he offer him the money he lost in full, but a six-figure income job working for Midnight Black. Sitting on Ivan’s yacht and already tasting a bit of the good life, Richie accepts. But it isn’t long until he finds out that Ivan is hiding some shady secrets, and pressed between a bullheaded, scheming FBI agent (Anthony Mackie) eager to take down the online kingpin, and the increasing instability of his boss, Richie will have do some maneuvering to stay alive and out of jail.
The film was written by Brian Koppelman and David Levien, who certainly know their way around this world, having penned “Rounders” and the “Ocean’s Thirteen.” But “Runner Runner” is less about gambling (though there is a fair amount of jargon, particularly early on) as it is mostly about a man with a great fortune, doing everything he can legal or illegal, to keep growing his empire. If Ivan Block were a real estate broker or drug dealer, the movie wouldn’t change all that much, and that’s part of the problem. “Runner Runner” feels like a movie you’ve seen a hundred times on cable, and hearkens back to numerous, thoroughly average, mid-budgeted dramatic thrillers of the mid-’90s that will fill programming slots on late night forever. If you watched this on a plane and fell asleep for twenty minutes, you’d wake up and still quickly figure out everything that’s going on. Once Ivan Block’s villainy is established, it’s merely a waiting game to see how he’ll get taken down.
So why did Ben Affleck take on a role in such an middle-of-the-road movie? Well, Ivan Block is easily the best, most well-written character of anyone in the film and Affleck really makes the most of it. He gets all of the best lines, and while the trailers have played up his most (out of context) histrionic moments, he actually chooses to underplay his bad guy for the most part, a smart approach for a role that could easily become a cartoon. Affleck fills in the shades of a character who is almost resentful of the isolation his success breeds, and whose business has almost become a perverse game of manipulating everyone who crosses his path. These notes are struck smoothly by Affleck, who still knows enough to realize he’s in a B-movie, and lands on the right side of self-seriousness, while having a bit of fun too. And in his shadow, Timberlake’s lead winds up being even more forgettable and thin, while Gemma Arterton‘s stock role of the girl who comes between the two guys is so cliche, it’s like everyone gave up on making it remotely interesting.
As “Runner Runner” heads into its final act, the wheezing familiarity of the tropes and beats of this kind of movie start to become more tedious, as the plotting becomes muddier to the point where Timberlake spends a good amount of time running around handing out envelopes (seriously). As Ivan fades into background, and Richie comes to the fore, the film gets less and less interesting, until it all finishes rather anti-climatically, with a couple of sour one liners tossed in for good measure.
Half-heartedly making statements about the seductive allure of a life in paradise, the murky waters of legalized gambling, “Runner Runner” is content to stay high gloss, with no filler. Furman directs this with more flair that it probably rightfully deserves, capturing both the palatial environs of Ivan’s business, the scummier, seedier parts of Costa Rica where the less than legal business goes down, with an eye for color. But unlike “The Lincoln Lawyer,” it’s not enough, even combined with a game turn from Affleck, to trick viewers into believing that the movie is more than a cinematic bluff. [C]