A story like “Runner Runner,” about a young American gambler who gets sucked way above his head into the criminal doings of a big-time offshore operator, would have found its ideal life as a tough, punchy, black-and-white programmer back in the 1950s, or today as a grandiose character study done on an operatic scale by a Martin Scorsese or Michael Mann.
What's actually up onscreen in this vaguely ambitious but tawdry melodrama falls into an in-between no man's land that endows it with no distinction whatsoever, a work lacking both style and insight into the netherworld it seeks to reveal.
Despite an intriguing setup and Ben Affleck and Justin Timberlake heading the cast, this film holds a losing box-office hand.
Movie preview: 'Runner Runner'
The opening,of the script by Brian Koppelman and David Levien (“Solitary Man,” “Oceans 13”) with Timberlake's presence, suggest a somewhat less exceptional variation on “The Social Network's” focus on maverick entrepreneurialism in the Ivy League. Threatened with expulsion from Princeton unless he shuts his online gambling site, finance grad student Richie Furst (Timberlake), with nothing now to lose, heads for Costa Rica determined to stick it to the undisputed king of computer gambling, Ivan Black (Affleck).
Arriving during the boss's annual blowout, the Midnight Black Expo, Richie cleverly scores an audience with the bodyguard-festooned Ivan. Lounging on his hero's yacht, Richie and brazenly accuses him of cheating him on his site ... and Ivan readily admits it. In the film's best-written scene, Ivan affably agrees to reimburse the kid for his losses and then some — and then asks Richie if he'd like to come work for him. Seven, maybe even eight figures a year beckon.
With Puerto Rican locations doubling for Costa Rica, the allure of Ivan's world looks pretty tacky no matter how doused in money it is. With the help of a couple of other Yankee college boys who are given no character dimension whatsoever, Richie quickly learns the ropes and gets mixed signals from Ivan's glamorous factotum Rebecca (Gemma Arterton), who may or may not be on exclusive reserve for the boss. All goes swimmingly until, a third of the way in, Richie is kidnapped by none other than the FBI, whose local agent Shavers (Anthony Mackie) tries to coerce the kid into informing on Ivan's business.