Few betting men would wager on Ben Affleck being the highlight of a movie, but that's how the cards fall in Runner Runner. The future caped crusader brings a casual, bemused menace to the role of an American businessman running an online-gambling empire from balmy Costa Rica, far from the reach of U.S. law. Less mogul than kingpin, Affleck bribes the local authorities, blackmails competitors into merging with his site, and—in the film's most outrageous act of criminality—dumps chicken fat over his rivals and kicks them to the alligators. Is the world of Internet poker really so seedy, its entrepreneurs so ruthless? To hear Runner Runner tell it, all the violence and vice gamers avoid by playing online can be found by tracing the servers to their Central American source, where web barons recreate casino culture without the casino.
Unlikely as it may sound, that's by no means the least plausible element of this generic crime opus, penned by the same screenwriting duo—Brian Koppelman and David Levien—who wrote 1998's cult card-shark drama Rounders. If that sleeper arrived about five years too early to capitalize on the Texas hold ’em craze, its descendant seems about a half-decade late to the table. Not that it's really about poker at all: While Rounders memorably steeped audiences in the specifics of the high-roller life—the lingo, the tricks of the trade, the flavorful atmosphere of New York gambling dens—Runner Runner could basically be set against the backdrop of any lucrative field. Only some voiceover musings, imparting nuggets of dual-purpose wisdom like “The House always wins,” suggest the work of the same writing team.
Surprisingly bland in a role he’s a little too old to occupy, Justin Timberlake plays the film's Princeton protagonist, a supposedly sharp fellow convinced that the best recourse for getting back his tuition nest egg, lost to grifters during a high-stakes online poker game, is to fly south to confront the site's notoriously dangerous owner. Lo and behold, this risky play pays off, as Affleck's unflappable tycoon takes the Ivy Leaguer under his wing, ushering him into his cutthroat business. But does the high life come with a price? Runner Runner is a run-of-the-mill rise-and-fall story, treating its hero to fabulous, exotic luxury before tugging the rug out from under him. In way over his head, Timberlake is quickly torn between competing interests, with the increasingly unscrupulous Affleck sending him blindly into danger while overzealous FBI agent Anthony Mackie tries to scare the kid into selling out his mentor. Naturally, there's also a potential femme fatale (Gemma Arterton), though the movie resists turning her tryst with Timberlake into a source of danger. (“Do what you want,” Affleck tells his philandering moll. “I know I do.”)
In different hands, Runner Runner might have worked as sleazy tropical noir, but director Brad Furman (The Lincoln Lawyer) never quite embraces the tawdriness of his material. (He directs as though he tried and failed to get a PG-13 rating.) Nor does the movie excel as a financial-collapse parable, even as it draws easy parallels between the corruption of the offshore gaming industry and that of Wall Street. Piling cons and reversals on top of each other, the screenwriters play their hand as predictably as a fish at a table full of sharks. The only real surprise here is seeing Timberlake lose in a heads-up charisma contest with Affleck. What were the Vegas odds on that ever happening?