Friday, October 4, 2013

Runner Runner: A fouled hand

Runner Runner (2013) • View trailer 
2.5 stars. Rating: R, for profanity and occasional blunt sexual candor

By Derrick Bang

Some movies defiantly wear their movie-ness like an ill-advised badge of honor.

The premise is so contrived, the characters so ill-defined, their behavior so random, that all we can do is shake our heads in resignation, thinking, What can we expect? It’s only a movie.

It's every teenage boy's dream come true: Richie (Justin Timberlake, left) couldn't be
happier when Internet gambling tycoon Ivan Block (Ben Affleck) accepts him as a
protégé. Of course, Richie fails to heed the slightest trace of common sense, branding
himself as the biggest sucker of all time: an attitude without which we wouldn't have
this film. Which might have been a good thing.
Runner, Runner fits that bill.

The script, credited to Brian Koppelman and David Levien, is absolutely ludicrous. It opens with a behavioral howler and just gets worse, its central character — our de facto hero — ignoring common sense to a degree that makes it impossible to sympathize with him. Frankly, he fully deserves the consequences that he eventually struggles so hard to escape.

Let him hang, and move on.

But no, that would defy the revenge scenario that Koppelman and Levien so clumsily stitch together, from one bewildering moment to the next. Director Brad Furman, perhaps recognizing the weak hand he has been dealt, does his best to dazzle us with Costa Rican scenery and the wretched excess of an opulent casino gaming community.

Indeed, cinematographer Mauro Fiore lingers so long on such a setting, when our young hero initially enters this hedonistic realm, that I began to wonder if Furman had forgotten what to do next.

Runner, Runner, set in the world of Internet gambling, is an echo for Koppelman and Levien. They made their bones back in 1998 with Rounders, a slick suspense thriller also involving high-stakes poker and a protagonist — in that case, Matt Damon — who gets in over his head. Clearly obsessed with gamblers and intricate stings, Koppelman and Levien subsequently created the short-lived TV series Tilt and brought the Danny Ocean series to a satisfying conclusion with Ocean’s Thirteen.

Things since then haven’t been nearly as satisfying, with two failures — The Girlfriend Experience and Solitary Man, both in 2009 — that were outside their comfort zone. No doubt Koppelman and Levien viewed Runner, Runner as a means of returning to what they know best.

Well guys, they say you can’t go home again ... and that’s certainly the case here.

Richie Furst (Justin Timberlake), a Wall Street up-and-comer who lost everything when the market crashed, has started over as a Princeton grad student. Lacking a respectable means to fund his education, he has been earning a commission as a shill for Midnight Black, an enormously successful Internet gambling site.

Alas, Princeton’s dean (a small but well-played role by Bob Gunton) thinks little of Richie’s clandestine operation, and orders it shut down. With no other means of earning tuition money, Richie goes “all in” one night by yielding to the very temptation that he has professed, during his smart-alecky narration, to be smart enough to avoid: playing online poker at Midnight Black. Naturally, he loses everything.

But suspiciously.

Richie knows poker odds, and during his all-nighter determines the “tells” of his online opponents, at least one of whom made impossible bets. A subsequent mathematical model of the night’s activities point to certain chicanery. (Gee ... ya think?)

We momentarily pause, to contemplate the bone-deep stupidity of anybody in the real world who would believe, for a moment, that these online gambling empires don’t cheat. How the hell would you ever know?

But I digress.

Most people would chalk up this experience as a valuable lesson learned, but not our Richie. He immediately hops a plane to Costa Rica — we can’t help wondering how he funds this trip — in order to confront Midnight Black’s owner/tycoon, Ivan Block (Ben Affleck, appropriately smooth and smarmy). Mind you, Richie never has been to this country, knows not a lick of Spanish, and has no six-degrees-of-separation connections to Block.

And yet, within a single day, he crosses paths with Midnight Black’s ultra-sultry COO, Rebecca Shafran (Gemma Arterton), and then wangles a face-to-face with Block himself.


Like I said: It’s a movie.

Block, impressed by Richie’s savvy — and by the fact that our hero kept his accusation on the low-down, rather than blabbing the details all over the Internet — immediately offers the younger man a job. (You’re just the sort of guy I need at my side, blah, blah, blah.) Richie, unable to believe his good luck (!), immediately accepts ... naively taking Block at face value, and convinced that he’s made a new best bud.

As introduced, Richie is too smart to be this stupid.

Granted, the world is full of stupid smart people, particularly when gobs of cash are involved. But fiction has the added responsibility of persuading us that such behavior is reasonable, given a set of circumstances, a task at which this film fails completely. Koppelman and Levien’s script isn’t sufficiently thought out — it’s an overblown pot-boiler, at best — and Timberlake’s limited acting chops aren’t able to fill in the blanks.

So, we go with the flow: Richie becomes Block’s apprentice because, well, the script says he does. And Richie stays at his new mentor’s side, despite increasing evidence that the sailing, well, isn’t quite as smooth as Block keeps insisting.

For openers, Richie soon gets braced by FBI Special Agent Shavers (Anthony Mackie, unpleasantly shrill), who wants Block for racketeering, extortion, bribery and probably a few other niggling charges. Trouble is, Costa Rica is beyond Shavers’ jurisdiction — hence no chance of extradition — and Block has the moolah to buy all the local cops and judges he might require.

Naturally, Rebecca is too much of a stunner for Richie to ignore, despite the fact that her relationship with Block seems more than purely professional. (All the willing female flesh on hand, and of course Richie wants the babe that common sense insists he shouldn’t pursue.) And, just as Richie never questions Block’s slick patter, he similarly doesn’t think twice about Rebecca’s come-hither advances. Like, after all this time with Block, she’d suddenly decide to fall in love with somebody else, and this eager-beaver Princeton grad student would be The Guy?

Oh, puh-leaze.

(Given the high-rolling self-indulgence on display, this film is surprisingly chaste: not a bared breast in sight, let alone any of the erotic sexual antics one would expect. But I digress again.)

Things get increasingly sloppy, with folks apparently changing their allegiances as a given scene demands. One sidebar character gets killed off-camera, except that he doesn’t; we’re later told that he was merely badly beaten, but is okay ... not that we ever see him again. Mind you, the narrative, as presented, demands that said individual should have been killed ... but that’s just the way Koppelman and Levien roll.

John Heard is memorable as Richie’s deadbeat father, a gambling addict who wants only that his son not follow in his footsteps. Heard is understated, his Harry Furst a sad remnant of a man, and this low-key performance is a welcome relief from the feverish pitch at which everybody else operates.

Furman’s directorial approach feels less like a film, and more like the overstated “acting” we generally get from the pixel avatars in first-person-shooter computer games. The overall tone is that heightened, that exaggerated, that manipulative.

Sidebar Costa Rican characters, whether in the local underworld or the local constabulary, are so poorly developed that it’s impossible to tell them apart. Some get assaulted; some do the assaulting. The details are irritatingly vague.

By the time we reach the mildly clever climax, we’re long past caring. And, even as the film concludes, fresh questions remain unanswered ... such as, What the heck happens to Richie’s father?

Furman, relatively new on the Hollywood scene, has two previous films to his credit. 2007’s The Take was stillborn, but he did a reasonably slick — if somewhat overwrought — job with 2011’s adaptation of Michael Connelly’s The Lincoln Lawyer. The result was engaging enough to suggest that, allied with competent writers, Furman could rise above hack-dom and carve out at least a minor career in B-flicks.

This limp exercise, however, won’t do him any favors.

Just in passing, “runner-runner” is a poker term that refers to a Texas Hold ’em hand made by hitting two consecutive cards on the turn (fourth) and river (fifth) cards. The odds of such success are, as you might imagine, extremely slim: an apt description of this maladroit flick’s chances at the box office.

Ya gotta know when to fold ’em.

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