*1/2 (out of four)
Most of the seemingly unrehearsed “Runner Runner” needed an extra take, though for all the film’s intelligence someone must have insisted it then be called “Runner Runner Runner Runner.”
Clearly written by the guys who scripted 1998’s “Rounders,” “Runner Runner” (a reference to a late-developing poker hand) introduces a smart, crafty finance guy and hinges the story on his suddenly becoming a doofus. After being hustled out of an online poker game he promotes, Princeton grad student Richie (Justin Timberlake) heads to Costa Rica, where a gaming convention conveniently is about to take place. There he can plead his case to powerful Ivan Block (Ben Affleck), who’s on the FBI target list and practically has “I cannot be trusted” tattooed on his forehead. Yet when Ivan offers Richie a shady-sounding opportunity with lots of zeros attached, this Ivy Leaguer jumps aboard as if he wants the audience to give their foreheads a good smacking.
Affleck tries to play Ivan like one of the film’s lurking crocodiles, his soft-spoken charm hiding sinister capabilities. Albert Brooks achieved this to glorious effect in “Drive”; Affleck merely looks indifferent and completely non-threatening. It’s as if someone promised him a beach vacation and waited to tell him about the filming-a-movie thing until he arrived. Timberlake, a long way from the expert swagger of “The Social Network” and “Friends with Benefits,” appears understandably disinterested as a ridiculous character who’s supposedly likable despite falling for such a transparently poisoned hook. Anyone can be tempted by money, but a movie about greed needs at least some effort in the seduction.
Reiterating that onscreen cool and edge can’t be faked, “Runner Runner” feels a little like an offshore, Internet-era version of “Wall Street,” only about a decade late to the popularity of online gaming. Richie discovers—gasp!—police corruption, and Gemma Arterton co-stars as a woman close to Ivan whom Richie of course can’t help but cozy up to. Both Richie and Ivan talk about the house always winning with such a low degree of badass that I longed for Wesley Snipes to appear and do his “always bet on black” line from “Passenger 57.”
Now there’s an actor who knows what trouble money can get you into.
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