Fox // 2013 // 91 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // January 20th, 2014
Who's playing who?
"Runner runner" is an adjective used to describe different kinds of hands in poker games (like Texas Hold 'Em) that have community cards. A "runner runner" hand occurs when a player makes his or her hand with the last two cards to be turned over in the community pile. It's a long shot kind of bet, with the player having to white-knuckle it as the cards are revealed, hoping for last second salvation. There's an analogy here to Runner Runner, a film that similarly hopes that viewers will hang around for last-minute salvation in the form of a thrilling twist. At the card table, the chances on a runner runner are in the single digits, which should tell you something about the film's success as well.
A few years ago, Richie (Justin Timberlake, The Social Network) tried to make his money on Wall Street. The 2008 recession took out his bosses, leaving him with nothing to do but go back to school for a masters at Princeton, but it's hard out there for a poor kid, so he acts as an affiliate to an online gambling website, funneling players to them for a cut of their money. This runs Richie afoul of the administration, so instead he tries to make the sixty grand he needs in tuition at an online poker site. When he loses suspiciously, he decides to take the info straight to the top, to Ivan Block (Ben Affleck, Argo). Block is hard to get to, so Richie goes down to Costa Rica, which embroils him in Block's world of high stakes poker, beautiful women (including Gemma Arterton, Byzantium) and a hungry FBI agent (Anthony Mackie, Million Dollar Baby).
The year 2013 saw an important film released about a young man who tried to make a go on Wall Street but found his chances stymied by a sudden dip. He then went on to fortune and fame in a gray-market world of high-stakes gambling filled with drugs, beautiful women, and government agents. Of course I'm talking about The Wolf of Wall Street, not Runner Runner. However, the comparison is instructive.
Runner Runner never quite decides what it wants to be. The story of an innocent genius corrupted by the lure of easy money is practically in Martin Scorsese's blood these days. It's the basic engine that drives Goodfellas, Casino, and The Wolf of Wall Street. Though the men differ in their genius (for crime, violence, and stock manipulation), they are all united by a love of the finer things in life that their genius can earn them. These films work because we're slowly seduced by the good things in life, just like our characters are, and the competence of those men makes it easy (or easier) to forgive their moral failings.
Runner Runner, however, has none of that. Everything moves much too quickly, from the first flash of Richie's genius to the apparent ease with which he gets close to Ivan Block, until his inevitable entanglement with the FBI. We never get a sense why Richie is so willing to go to the dark side. Money is the usual answer, but it feels like an excuse more than a reason. Runner Runner doesn't give us the time to be seduced by Ivan Block's world, nor does it present us with characters compelling enough to want to stay.
Instead, Runner Runner hopes that it'll fall into thriller territory, pulling viewers along in the wake of Richie's problems. This doesn't quite work, either. Though it's obvious enough that Richie wants to be rich, it doesn't feel like sufficient motivation. Of course everything about his rise to power feels unreal, but that's because it is. It's a ridiculous conceit, so it's hard as a viewer to decide if this is simply another fantasy or if there are larger forces at work in Richie's sudden success. The world is given too cursory an explanation for Richie's difficulties to be apparent, and once they're real, it's hard to ever take them seriously.
Perhaps the film's greatest sin is that it totally wastes its cast. Justin Timberlake doesn't have the chops yet to take a movie on his own, and he's too bland as Richie. Ben Affleck gets a few scenes to rumble as a heavy, but never allows himself to charm or seduce like he can. Anthony Mackie gets to raise his voice a lot as an FBI agent, but his comic timing isn't used to any good effective. Gemma Arterton is wasted as almost pure eye candy with almost no character to speak of.
At least Fox's Runner Runner (Blu-ray) is decent. The 2.40:1/1080p AVC-encoded image is almost universally gorgeous, showing off the beautiful Costa Rican setting to full effect. Detail is strong throughout, with plenty of pleasing textures. Colors pop appropriately, and black levels stay consistent and deep. The DTS-HD 5.1 track is similarly impressive. Dialogue stays clean and clear, with the surrounds mainly used for the score or the occasional crowded scene. The score showcases the excellent dynamic range and clarity of the track.
Extras start with a 17-minute featurette that covers the world of online poker. Though it's a bit clip heavy, it does a pretty good job of presenting the world as it is today. We also get 11 minutes of deleted scenes, along with the film's trailer.
Despite its flaws, Runner Runner is watchable enough. The cast is attractive, the setting beautiful, and the plot unchallenging enough that it goes down smooth. If you're looking for beer instead of water, you'll be disappointed, but those looking for a pretty and fluffy piece of fiction you could do much worse.
If you offered me the opportunity to shoot Runner Runner in Costa Rica, I'd probably jump at it, so I can't blame anyone involved for trying to have some fun. Though it doesn't succeed as either a consistent thriller or a portrait of the underworld of online gambling, Runner Runner is at least pleasantly inoffensive. Maybe worth a rental for fans of the actors.
Guilty of wasting talent.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English, Descriptive)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 91 Minutes
Release Year: 2013
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes
* DVD Copy
* Digital Copy
* UltraViolet Download
* Official Site
* Facebook Page