Runner Runner is a nice bit of capable, pulpy entertainment. The opening titles suggest poker will feature centrally in the plot. But it’s really more about a young, basically decent man who is seduced by the excitement and lavish lifestyle of a corporatized criminal enterprise in the digital age. The enterprise could be anything – it just happens to be online gaming.
With its newsreel montages on the industry’s rise, the opening credits also leave the unpleasant hint that Runner Runner will descend into a treacly, Lifetime-TV-esque moral fable on the dangers of internet poker. Happily, it doesn’t take that route either.
Richie Furst (Justin Timberlake) is immediately sympathetic as a working class kid who made good, got wowed by Wall Street, then got left with nothing by the 2008 crash. Now he’s paying his way through Princeton with his online poker earnings. Bob Gunton is decidedly unsympathetic as the Princeton suit who threatens to boot Richie if he doesn’t drop the poker habit.
So Richie stakes his remaining $17,000 on one marathon gaming night, hoping to win enough to keep himself in school another semester. He promptly loses it all, but a friend with statistical analysis chops takes a look at what happened, and concludes it was almost certainly a scam.
Ritchie jets off for the poker site’s Costa Rican headquarters, run by the ultra-wealthy Ivan Block (Ben Aflleck). His plan to bring the cheating to Block’s attention directly and get his money back is a bit hair-brained, but Richie rather ingeniously worms his way into the mogul’s circle by crashing a party and flashing his message to the security cameras. The gambit works, and this impresses Block so he brings Richie into the company. Runner Runner is smart enough to subtly suggest that by accepting, Richie is repeating the exact mistake that got him burned on Wall Street.
Needless to say, Block’s online poker empire is not as it seems, and Richie finds himself increasingly enmeshed in a labyrinthian criminal underworld of financial double dealings, government bribes, hungry crocodiles, and one very pissed off and unscrupulous FBI agent (Anthony Mackie).
No one’s gonna win an Oscar here, but Timberlake continues to impress as a capable everyman – by Hollywood’s ultra-heightened beauty standards, anyway. Affleck has the awareness to keep his character’s cruelty largely contained beneath the surface. And the script by Brian Koppelman and David Levien hands Affleck some genuinely funny lines he delivers with smirking panache.
Director Brad Furman ably switches between clinically contemplative frames and frantic hand-held shots as the needs call for it, and he comes up with some creative, emotionally resonate camera placement. The first act rave sequence, as a series of visual gymnastics, is especially enjoyable.
To the writers’ credit, the characters all behave intelligently. When the FBI roughs up Richie, insisting he become their mole, he does’t keep it to himself as some plot gimmick to artificially jack up the tension. He goes straight to Block with the truth. After Richie blackmails a mark, the man reacts with understated acceptance of why everyone’s doing what they’re doing.
Then there’s Gemma Arterton, who doesn’t have a lot to do other than look savagely gorgeous. But at least her character doesn’t have to be hand-held or cajoled into recognizing the danger Block represents. She’s been his colleague and lover long enough to figure it out under her own powers.
I wouldn’t exactly call Runner Runner grounded. It’s never clear how the statistical analysis of Richie’s game functions. And the legal stakes are around online gaming precise, either. But the movie respects the audience’s intelligence, never descends into over-the-top action, and the crime narrative plays out with a workman-like logic. The plot bells and whistles are minimal, and there are no bullshit last-minute surprises or reversals.
Runner Runner knows what it wants to be, how to get there, how to not overreach, and when to get out (it’s a short and punchy hour and a half.) The effect is something in the vicinity of a low-key, refreshingly effective, albeit tropical noir.