Director shows his hand too early
TAKING its title from a hand in poker that is vastly improved by other cards on the table, Runner Runner (15) is a slick yet soulless thriller set in the high-stakes world of online gambling.
Director Brad Furman deals himself a potentially winning hand with an attractive cast led by Justin Timberlake, Ben Affleck and Gemma Arterton, plus gorgeous Puerto Rican locations (standing in for Costa Rica) festooned with scantily clad lovelies.
Screenwriters Brian Koppelman and David Levien pretend to have a couple of aces up their sleeves as they plunge conflicted, greedy characters into a moral quagmire.
Unfortunately, they're bluffing, because when the chips are down, Furman's film folds at the key juncture and opts for a neat resolution to all of the backstabbing.
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Wall Street wizard Richie Furst (Timberlake) loses his high-salary job and entire fortune then returns to university to gain his masters in finance.
At Princeton, he pays his way as an affiliate for gambling websites, introducing fellow students as new players for a small commission.
When the Dean (Bob Gunton) learns about this enterprise, he threatens Richie with expulsion.
So the risk-taking student transfers his earnings into an account on the Midnight Black poker website and attempts to win his tuition fees.
The gamble doesn't pay off and Richie identifies peculiar betting patterns in his losing games, which two classmates (Ben Schwartz, Oliver Cooper) confirm must be the result of insider betting.
He travels to the Costa Rican headquarters of Midnight Black and confronts owner Ivan Block (Affleck) about the irregularities.
Impressed with Richie's bravado, Block offers him a high-powered job within the company, tightening up online security and identifying glitches in the system.
Richie rises swiftly through the ranks and sparks a dangerous attraction to Block's personal assistant, Rebecca Shafran (Arterton).
When Richie's implicated in Block's wrongdoing, the newcomer must decide whether to align himself with an FBI agent (Anthony Mackie), who is intent on bringing down the Midnight Black empire.
Runner Runner is an enjoyable yet lightweight tale of corporate skullduggery that lacks both directorial brio and verbal fireworks.
Timberlake loses his top in early scenes, for no obvious reason other than to shamelessly appeal to his fan base, and he catalyses smouldering screen chemistry with Arterton in their sexually charged scenes.
Affleck looks like he's still shell-shocked from winning the Oscar for Argo and dials in a minimal performance, even when he's feeding a turncoat to the crocodiles or telling an underling, "If you want a safer job, go to the Post Office!"
There's no dramatic tension since Timberlake's hero never seems to be in serious jeopardy so the film reduces to not if Richie will steal the pot, but when.