Life, as if proof were even needed, has its ups and downs. This fact is not always evenly distributed, with some of us having more of the latter than the former, but nevertheless, both are dealt relatively evenly over time. This doesn’t appear to matter too much who you are, where you’re from, how respected, talented or feared you may be, or even how much money you make. As Morpheus once stated quite philosophically, fate it seems, is not without a sense of irony.
And so no sooner has Ben Affleck found a place on his mantelpiece for his latest Oscar for Argo, along comes the apparently unmissable opportunity to star alongside an ex-Disney-Club-teen-boy-band-then-solo-singing-sensation and a former pupil from St Trinian’s, who actually turned out a bit of alright, as it happens.
Runner Runner, a title originating from a card dealt in poker that significantly improves your hand is an apt title, seeing as this project deals with the often accused shady underhappenings surrounding the apparently illicit business of offshore gambling. Justin Timberlake (The Social Network, Inside Llewyn Davis, N-Sync) plays a Princeton student down on his luck when the Dean of the College gets wind of his attempts to sour the great young minds of America by introducing them to online gambling as an affiliate lead generator, for which he receives a modest income.
When he realises that he has lost all of his money in a game of poker online to someone who has cheated, he doesn’t fire off an email to the business, or take to some internet forum to whine about it. Oh no, he finds out where the company is based and then hops on a plane to present the evidence to the owner of the company, Ivan Block (Affleck). Block is so impressed with him, he gives him all his money back and offers him a job, which he duly accepts. Yes, you guessed it, not the best decision he has made in his short, charmed life thus far.
The story of this young mans’ descent into criminality, first as an ignorant and innocent bystander, then complicit enough to interest the FBI and Block’s main squeeze (Gemma Arterton) is neither new or enlightening. Nor does it send much of a positive moral message to the viewer. There is really never any stage during the film where it is suggested that the actions of Timberlake’s character are questionable. Timberlake is too cute and cocksure to be seen as knowingly criminal in his dealings, even if that is exactly what he is doing. There are inevitable comeuppances by the end of the story, but the value of this cautionary tale is lost in the telling of a story of a man that the film wishes you to like, or even love. When you don’t, it makes the whole sordid affair seem a little bit like a bad beat.
Affleck coasts through the film, paying lip-service only to the script, which at times is interesting and even fizzes off the page on occasion, but mostly, this is by the numbers stuff for him and you can tell by the glazed look in his eyes, that he knows he should be doing something else. Timberlake is not convincing as a hoodlum at all, but during the first act, he shines enough to draw enough goodwill from the audience to seem him through to the end.
In all, a decidedly average stab at a thriller that takes on a previously ignored industry, ploughs its depths and comes up with just enough righteous indignation to have Daily Mail readers everywhere tutting and shaking their heads in typical stiff-collared apoplexy. Entertaining enough, certainly, but stop there. No royal flush. More like two pairs. Kings and threes. Okay, but most certainly not enough to win this hand.