It’s hard not to walk out of a movie like Brad Furman’s Runner Runner without wanting to run straight home to your computer, design and print up some “Have you seen this film’s plot?” and slap them to every wall and pole in Tinseltown.
Granted that’s a lot of work and it may not yield much of a response – how can you find something that was never there? – but at least it would be a hell of lot more labour than anything undertaken by protagonist Richie Furst (Justin Tinberlake) who seems to have a serious case of “The World Owes Me a Lavish Living.”
When first we meet Richie, who to be fair is played with likeable earnestness by Justin Timberlake, he is funding his insanely expensive tuition at Princeton by referring naive players to an online gaming site.
Caught by the Dean (Bob Gunton) who frowns on this type of under the counter entrepreneurial can do – presumably Richie needs to be born to fabulously wealthy parents instead, a tactic his flake of a gambling addict father Harry (John Heard) completely failed to plan for, silly man – admonishes Richie who, suitably chastened, decides to gamble all his remaining money to earn the $60,000 or so he needs to finish his studies.
So lesson not even remotely learnt then huh?
Naturally he is scammed like there is no tomorrow, loses it all, and outraged that the world has done him wrong yet again – he has already suffered greatly poor boy at the hands of financial ne’er do wells when he lost his job and all his money during the GFC – decides to fly to Costa Rica to confront Ivan Block (Ben Affleck), a gambling titan with pretensions to be a cheesy, if menacing Bond villain, whose site bilked Furst of his funds.
Gotta hand it to Furst – he has kahunas the size of his debts and in short order he schmoozes his way into Block’s presence via his right hand woman Rebecca played by Gemma Atherton (actual job description manifestly unclear but lord, can she wear dresses and pout seductively, an important quality for the film’s barely pubescent core demographic) and tells him what for.
Apparently he expects Block, a man who feeds associates covered in goopy chicken fat to hungry alligators for fun, to just roll over, acknowledge Furst’s mountainous chip on the shoulder and his need for well-deserved restitution, and give him everything he lost back.
Surprise, surprise that isn’t what happens. Well, not quite.
No, what in fact does happen is every teenage guy’s wish fulfilment fantasy – Furst gets all his money back, a stay in a luxury hotel, a ridiculously high paying job, and, rather handily, a moral vacuum in which to do it (something that his Boy Scout morality doesn’t handle too well).
Not quite unfortunately.
Before he knows it, Furst is besieged by a trigger-happy FBI agent, Agent Shavers, who appears to believe that kidnapping would be informants is a winning recruitment strategy, finds himself used as a money mule by Block to deliver bribes to the corrupt Gaming Minister, Herera (Yul Vazquez) who allows them to operate with impunity, gets beaten up, and needs to formulate some kind of exit strategy from the Laurel and Hardy with guns-esque “This is another fine mess you’ve gotten us into” situation.
It’s pretty much a standard thriller narrative conceit these days – give your protagonist what he wants, make him pay dearly for it, and give him or her the means to seek the kind of revenge that will engage an audience handily for at least 1 1/2 hours.
Engaged yes but well-served? Not necessarily.
Runner Runner is all showy immersive spectacle with precious little substance undergirding it.
Furst is never in any real jeopardy, manages to concoct a way to extricate himself from the nightmare he has woven around himself thanks to his sense of entitlement and greed with minimal effort and risk, falls in lust with Rebecca who rolls on her boss and former lover just like that (a relationship emblematic of the shallow-end-of-the-pool relationships throughout the film), and lands on his feet, with very few lessons learned.
In fact so swift, and murkily realised is the finale, and thus Block’s well-telegraphed comeuppance, that it pretty much happens before you know what’s hit you.
Sure, there’s lot of rock music heavy montages showing Furst setting all kinds of things up, and outplaying the master player Block, but exactly what it is he is doing isn’t clear till much later.
It’s not clever writing or snappy directing at work here – simply lazy to non-existent plot construction, that is all activity with little to no real tension or suspense, visual sleights of hand that seem to promise much but deliver little.
You’re expected to unquestioningly hang on for the moderately enjoyable ride, which is rocky at best, and hope it all kind of makes sense at the end which is, and this may shock you, all wrapped in a neat little, narratively simplistic bow.
If you don’t engage your brain, or dig too far down, it’s an enjoyable enough B-grade thriller.
The thing is it doesn’t take much effort to undercover the small, unimpressive storytelling wizard behind the curtain, and all you’re left with is showy spectacle and an itching need to go home and print a whole heap of flyers.