Film review of ‘Runner Runner’: Best not to run the risk with this losing gamble

Following on from the critical success of Argo and the artistic aspirations of Terrence Malick’s To The Wonder, Ben Affleck seems to have decided that he has been flying far too close to the sun recently, and so to avoid emulating Icarus, he has elected to return to the formulaic shadows of Hollywood with wings intact in order to star in this all too familiar and generic thriller. He plays Ivan Block, the ‘wizard of odds’ and the boss of a burgeoning online gambling empire based in Costa Rica, into which Timberlake’s cash-poor student is lured. Despite all the talk of internet gambling offering a new path to the American dream, Runner Runner veers more towards the nightmarish restlessness of a sleep-deprived night, offering little more than an exercise in sheep-counting.

What we have here then is a blow-by-blow rehashing of Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, with the boardrooms and high-powered lunches supplanted for pool parties and luxury yachts, and with the dramatic tension, revelatory script and simmering performances replaced by apathy and going-through-the motions laziness. Timberlake takes on the Charlie Sheen role as Richie Furst, a Princeton student who, after losing his tuition fees playing internet poker on Block’s site, inexplicably decides his best course of action is to fly to Costa Rica and confront the mogul with proof that he was cheated out of his money. However, unlike the diligent persistence required by Sheen’s character in gaining access to Gekko’s world in Wall Street, Furst is granted an audience with no trouble at all, alluding to the general lack of effort applied to even the simple task of plagiarism by the filmmakers here.

On meeting him, Ivan recognises Furst as a chip off the old block (quite literally) and subsequently hires him, dangling intoxicating carrots of wealth, glamour, decadence, and the sunny paradise of Latin America to lure him into his web of intrigue. Predictability abounds as Furst becomes Block’s right-hand man, flirts with his gal (Arterton in an underwhelming role and an overwhelming tan) and slowly comes to the realisation that all that glitters is not gold and that there are in fact some shady dealings going on beneath the surface of this perfect world. It thus transpires that Block is not quite the generous philanthropist he appeared to be, and that Furst is indeed being groomed to take the fall as the net tightens around Block’s empire as both the Feds and corrupt local politicians loom menacingly. Shock horror, the beach-house parties and dancing girls are revealed to be the alluring trappings of the devil, and even those cute, unassuming crocodiles that Block innocently feeds with whole chickens are later used to dispose of meat of a whole other variety – who would have guessed it.

This is a lazy, copycat film that barely goes through the motions. It slowly sizzles in the sun before offering a perfunctory frown of pious disapproval and steals shamelessly and poorly from The Devil’s Advocate, The Firm and any Bond film you care to mention. The performances are equally uninspired, and while Affleck succeeds at being affable and charmingly alluring in the first half, he simply doesn’t possess the skills to be convincing as a Machiavellian monster in the final stages.

The final credits inform us that Runner Runner was executively produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, who shrewdly realised that there was money for old rope here. He could well have taken the Block role himself and nailed it, but he probably also realised that the very same rope could well have hanged him if he did.

Runner Runner (11)

Dir: Brad Furman; US action/thriller, 2013, 91 mins; Ben Affleck, Justin Timberlake, Gemma Arterton, Anthony Mackie
Premiered September 26
Playing nationwide

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