With a few notable exceptions (Oceans Eleven and Casino Royale, to name a few), gambling films have never held any place of honor in my heart. I’ve heard enough stories about overconfident prodigies scamming their way into the big leagues (and the big bucks) enough times that I feel sated enough to never need to set foot in a gambling establishment in my life. I had my fingers crossed that Runner Runner would have something new to bring to the poker table, but despite its best efforts to convince me otherwise, it was bluffing all along.
Runner Runner follows the goings-about of Richie, a Princeton graduate student fresh off a crushing financial failure on Wall Street. It appears that despite having previously landed a job in the financial district, and having the brainpower and achievement record to get into Princeton, the best job Richie can land is a mildly sketchy gig steering his peers and professors to online gaming websites. The Princeton Dean tells Richie to get a new, less damaging job, or he’s done with grad school. Drowning in tuition payments, Richie finds himself in a desperate predicament that a huge number of college students (myself included) can relate to. In a scene embarrassingly similar to The Social Network, Richie gambles away the entirety of his bank account, and is about to give up home when he does some calculations and comes to the realization that he was scammed. Once again Richie makes the most reasonable, informed decision, and catches a plane to Costa Rica to confront the owner, Ivan Block (Ben Affleck) in person. Affleck plays Block with a soft voice and a yielding Machiavellian charm, diminishing like the Cheshire Cat into his ostentatious background of yachts, house music, and disposable bikini-clad women. Block takes a liking to Richie’s boldness and entices him into working for his venture. As the audience can undoubtedly predict, but poor Richie couldn’t, getting in deep with a multi-billion gambling industry in Costa Rica might take you some places you didn’t want to go, and Richie gets in over his head.
Runner Runner also stars the beautiful Gemma Arterton as Block’s partner, Rebecca, but the filmmakers had to hack away at her talent so they could cram her into the love interest pigeon-hole, and she felt more like a prop than anything. The only time the film gained any momentum was when the much underused Anthony Mackie was on screen, playing the only character not inexplicably enamored with the un-relatable, whitebread Richie; an FBI agent looking to put away the seemingly untouchable Ivan Block. Mackie’s dynamic acting and magnetism served only to spotlight the sheer one-dimensionality of the rest of the performances.
Movies to me are about more than just sitting and taking it in. I don’t like watching movies, I like experiencing them. A good movie is more than a distraction, it’s a life event–something you can fall into headfirst and let the troubles of your world slide away into the wonders of another. That’s the magic. But Runner Runner was so shallow if I’d dived in I would have died instantaneously of a brain injury. It felt like it was trying to impart a message about the seductive nature of the money and thrills lifestyle, but the film was too self-serving and insubstantial for me to lend it any credibility. I would have loved nothing more than to enjoy this movie, but a thriller is meant to keep you on your toes, and I was grinding by my heels the whole way. Like gambling, the good moments were too few and far between to outweigh the losses, and by the end of the film I was an hour and a half in debt.
Runner Runner opens October 4. Directed by Brad Furman. 91 minutes.