Screenwriters Brian Koppelman and David Levien came up aces with “Rounders,” the 1998 Matt Damon poker film that folded at the box office but came up a winner on DVD. With “Runner Runner,” the writing duo takes another turn at the table, dealing out a gambling-themed pic starring Damon’s best bud, Ben Affleck, as an online gaming mogul. And while Affleck is terrific in a cookie-cutter role, the rest of the film isn’t so good.
He’s Ivan Block, the sexy, shady hustler of the high-stakes online gaming site Midnight Black. It runs out of Costa Rica, a paradise where every day is filled with beautiful women, lavish parties and luxury yachts with names like “The House.” Get it? As in “the house” always wins. Where have I heard that before?
Affleck is so charismatic, though, you’re willing to tag along until it becomes clear Koppelman and Levien are just shuffling a deck of cliches. They also do a lot of double-dealing, stealing liberally from their “Rounders” script, with Justin Timberlake taking over the Damon role (unconvincingly) as the naive babe in the woods. He’s Richie Furst, a financial whiz kid determined to take down the arrogant Block.
When we first meet Riche, he’s struggling to pay his Princeton tuition, so he turns to online poker. After he’s defrauded out of $17,000, Richie flies to Costa Rica to infiltrate Ivan’s inner circle.
In the turn of a card, Richie lands a meeting with the well-insulated gaming kingpin (there’d be no movie otherwise) and gets more than he bargained for. He becomes Ivan’s right-hand man. Seduced by a seven-figure salary, Richie goes all-in. Double-crosses, jealousy and an FBI racketeering investigation ensue.
Also added to the ante are the pat love triangle between Richie, Ivan and Rebecca (Gemma Arterton), not to mention an emotionally manipulative subplot involving Richie’s degenerate gambler father (John Heard).
With a such a weak story, director Brad Furman (“The Lincoln Lawyer”) gives “Runner Runner” (the title comes from a rare Texas Hold’ em hand) a very technical (read: boring) peak into the $30 billion a year online-gambling industry.
If you’re not already clued into this world, then all the jargon – “He was folding while I was trapping” – will likely be confusing. When that gets too much, Furman relies on filling his scenes with eye candy – cars, clothes, women and relying on pulsating electronic dance music to make the movie appear hip, if nothing else.
The stakes in online gambling are certainly high, but the movie is really no big deal.
• “Runner Runner” is rated R for language and some sexual content. The cast includes Ben Affleck, Justin Timberlake and Gemma Arterton. Grade: C+