Written by Bryan M Zarpentine
On the surface, Runner Runner may seem like an enticing thriller, with a proven writing duo, an up and coming director, and two great and appealing actors in Ben Affleck and Justin Timberlake leading the cast, but nothing could be further from the truth. It does just enough to prevent audiences from feeling cheated out of their money as they leave the theater, but it’s greatly disappointing on several fronts. Essentially, Runner Runner is a shortcut thriller; it cuts corners that it shouldn’t and tries to move forward too quickly without ever really knowing where it wants to go. It’s terribly written, poorly directed, and has no rhythm or flow, which ruins a promising idea and a few compelling action sequences that would have otherwise made it a decent and worthwhile movie.
Timberlake plays the lead role, Richie Furst, a graduate student at Princeton and the go-to guy on campus for anything that relates to gambling. Richie was cheated out of a career on Wall Street by the economic collapse, which forced him to return to school to pursue a Masters in finance. However, he finds himself in debt and is reliant on playing online poker and partnering up with gambling websites to pay his tuition. Desperate to make money fast, Richie puts everything he owns on the line playing poker online, but ends up losing his life savings and has no way of paying his tuition.
Suspicious of the manner in which he lost all his money, Richie investigates further and discovers a flaw in the website where he lost all his money and concludes that he was cheated. He then decides to take matters into his own hands and confront the owner of the offshore website Ivan Block, who is played by Affleck. Against the advice of his friends, Richie flies to Costa Rica with the hope of getting a meeting with Ivan, telling him about the flaw in the website, and getting his money back. This all happens way too fast, as if the filmmakers are in a hurry to set everything up and move forward with the plot as quickly as possible. The audience doesn’t get a chance to know Timberlake’s character or empathize with his situation before he takes off for Costa Rica. The movie doesn’t take enough time to explain Richie’s grievances with the website and why confronting Ivan is the best solution.
Once in Costa Rica, Richie finds a clever way to get a meeting with Ivan and subsequently gets his money back from him rather quickly and easily, which is a little anti-climactic and quite disappointing for the audience, as they were expecting something a little more exciting since that appeared to be the primary point of conflict in the movie. In a slight twist, Ivan return’s Richie’s money in full and then offers Richie a job working for him, along with a guarantee of a large sum of money. Richie accepts the tantalizing offer without hesitation and the true plot of Runner Runner is finally revealed, which is the complex working relationship between Richie and Ivan.
From here on out, the film follows a multitude of subplots involving a wide array of supporting characters. In addition to the relationship between Richie and Ivan, the subplots Runner Runner focuses on include Richie’s romantic relationship with one of Ivan’s assistants and former girlfriends, who is played by Gemma Arterton; Richie’s dealings with an FBI agent, played by Anthony Mackie, who wants him to provide proof of Ivan’s illegal activities; Richie’s relationship with his father, who is played by John Heard; and Ivan’s dealings with some of the local Costa Ricans that he does business with. Many of the subplots are cliché and derivative, and in a way the plot becomes cluttered with too many characters.
Ultimately, all the various subplots do come together and make sense at the conclusion of the movie, but the movie isn’t long enough to accommodate so many separate subplots, which causes the movie to lack direction and continuity. There isn’t enough time dedicated to each subplot in order to fully develop them. Instead, the movie just appears to bounce around erratically, giving the audience no clue as to what’s important and what their focus should be, which makes many of the subplots tough to keep up with and ultimately unsatisfying. It’s as if the filmmakers took short cuts in order to get through everything they needed to in order to set up the ending, making this a shotty piece of filmmaking. Runner Runner delivers an interesting story that had plenty of promise early on, but a story this intricate with so many different subplots needed to be longer and fleshed out more in order to make the movie work.
The problems with the plot and story telling are the fault of both the director and the writers, all of whom should have done better. Director Brad Furman was impressive in his last venture, The Lincoln Lawyer, but he fails miserably in his follow up. It’s as if Furman has no idea how to tell a story, or perhaps forgot that an important part of making a movie is telling a story. Moreover, it’s not bad enough that the movie is too short for a plot so intricate, but Furman also wastes a lot of time on unnecessary things. Far too much of the movie plays like a love letter to the rich and famous, as the screen is filled with large yachts, fancy cars, and a myriad of other luxury items, which are meaningless with such an undeveloped plot. The rest of the movie is a series of parties and back-alley business deals that inch the plot forward, doing so only enough to set up the next extravagant and meaningless shot.
The writing tandem of Brian Koppelman and David Levien have a great track record, as the duo is responsible for such memorable movies as Rounders, Runaway Jury, and Ocean’s Thirteen, but Runner Runner will certainly be going on their blooper reel. The idea behind the story is great, but the execution of it is terrible. There is too much emphasis on writing one-liners that will be memorable and pleasing for the audience and not enough emphasis on writing quality dialogue that’s going to move the plot forward. We’ve come to expect much better scripts from Koppelman and Levien, and they were greatly disappointing on this one.
To a certain extent, the actors help to salvage Runner Runner, but they can only do so much. Timberlake is clearly the highlight of the movie, as he carries the film as best he can. He’s smart, confident, and at times a little bit smug, while also showing off real vulnerability when necessary. Timberlake does the best he can with the material in front of him, and even though he’s unable to completely make up for the terrible story telling, he does give the movie enough of a boost so that the audience isn’t tempted to walk out before it’s over.
Affleck’s mere presence in the movie is surprising to see, as it seems like he would be above a movie like this, considering how poor the script is. Just like Timberlake, Affleck oozes confidence, which is noticeable whenever he’s on screen. He does the best he can with the bad dialogue he’s given, and he actually nails several of the one-liners he’s given with great energy and vigor. Playing the villain is actually a good fit for Affleck, as he does well to capture the subtleties of such a role. Of course, not even someone like Affleck can make up for all of the shortcomings in Runner Runner.
Even some of the supporting characters turn in solid performances, namely Mackie, who infuses a shot of life into the film when he first appears. He’s authentic and enjoyable, but he’s also greatly underutilized, as his subplot is quickly lost in the shuffle, which is disappointing to see, as the movie surely could have benefited from him playing a more prominent role. Of course, supporting characters not getting much of an opportunity to make a meaningful contribution is another issue the movie has throughout.
If there’s one thing the movie does right, it’s the ancillary parts of filmmaking that entice and entertain an audience, even amidst a poorly told story, bad writing, and bad directing. Runner Runner provides stunning visuals of the beautiful scenery and crazy parties, while also pulling the audience in with seductive dialogue and shots of beautiful women. They’re rather cheap filmmaking techniques, but they’re done in an effective manner, as they do mask some of the movie’s deficiencies. Between those shrewd techniques and a healthy dose of crowd-pleasing one-liners, Runner Runner is actually quite entertaining at times, which saves it from being a total disaster.
All things considered, Runner Runner deserves no more than two out of five stars. A few entertaining moments and solid performances by a pair of star actors don’t make up for a myriad of shortcomings. The script is bad and cuts too many corners, not allowing the intricate plotlines to be fleshed out. The directing is poor and lacks any semblance of actual story telling. It’s a movie that’s in a hurry, as if it’s rushing to get somewhere good, but never actually gets there. There are few redeeming qualities, and in so many ways Runner Runner is a truly terrible movie.
Director: Brad Furman
Writers: David Levien, Brian Koppelman
Actors: Justin Timberlake, Gemma Arterton, Anthony Mackie, Ben Affleck
Run Time: 1 hour 31 minutes
Pros: Intriguing story line; quality performances by stars Justin Timberlake and Ben Affleck; entices the audiences with beautiful scenery and seductive dialogue; several crowd-pleasing one-liners.
Cons: Terrible script that doesn’t develop subplots at all; bad directing with no semblance of story telling; takes obvious short cuts and isn’t long enough to satisfy an intricate plot line.