Runner Runner is set in Costa Rica, inside the world of online poker sites operating offshore, within the gray legal boundaries of foreign governments. But while the setting seems specific, the movie employs very generic language to tell its story. This really could have been about any other semi-legal industry, the film offering little beyond the clichés of the young go-getter getting in over his head. A strong performance from one of its primaries almost makes it worthwhile, but in the end it’s far too bland to make much of an impression.
Princeton grad student Richie Furst (Justin Timberlake) turns to online poker to find money to pay his tuition. He ends up losing, but he realizes that he was cheated. Desperate to get his money back, he flies to Costa Rica to confront Ivan Block (Ben Affleck), owner of the site he was gambling on. Block is impressed by Richie's initiative, and hires him as a consultant for the site. But the business is far more complicated than Richie had imagined, and soon he's caught up in dangerous dealings that put him and the people he loves at risk.
The novel setting disguises an utterly generic story: young whiz kid is seduced into a shady business, finds success, only to discover that there are darker things afoot. Though the film deals with a rather unique business, it never really explores the details of the operation. It mentions them offhand, and then moves on to something far more familiar. This in itself didn’t have to be such a bad thing, but the film tosses off these formulaic sequences with no real commitment or sense of style. The movie itself seems bored with what it’s doing, and just kind of lets things play out.
Pretty much everything about the film is boilerplate, with everything just competent enough to resemble a modicum of style. But it’s all just glossy exteriors with nothing underneath. There is, for example, a boilerplate romance in the film between Richie and a former lover of the antagonist. But there’s no real heat fueling the romance, and the potential conflicts inherent in such a relationship are just waved off. The love interest isn’t so much a character as she is a plot device. The film just seemed to think that there needed to be a love interest, and so it just threw one together without bothering to write a personality.
Justin Timberlake is perfectly all right at the protagonist, but as with the rest of the movie, there’s nothing bubbling underneath that patina of cool. It is Ben Affleck that gives the film what little juice it ends up having. Affleck can be a difficult presence on screen, but he is perfectly cast here as a big-time hustler, hiding his menace behind a smug but friendly countenance. Gemma Arterton gets the short end of the stick with a character that could have been played by a mannequin.
There is a scene in Runner Runner where a character explains that she couldn’t get out of the business when she found out about the dirty dealings. She says that she was under contract, and that she couldn’t really do anything. And that’s what the movie feels like: a contractual obligation. The people involved, other than Affleck, don’t leave much of a mark on this movie. It’s all in a day’s work, and little more than that. These are professional, and so the final product isn’t really terrible. But it’s also terribly, terribly bland, and that might be worse.