In “Runner Runner,” a Princeton math genius (Justin Timberlake) who has cultivated a lucrative side gig via online poker loses his life savings and flies to Costa Rica to confront the magnate (Ben Affleck) who may have cheated him out of his money.
In its early moments, the movie evokes everything from “The Social Network” to “Casino.” By the end, the film has become as exciting as a game of Old Maid. R-rated thrillers are hardly ever this dull and listless, but this movie manages to eradicate all of Timberlake’s charisma and makes you flash back to Affleck’s “Paycheck”/“Gigli” era. How does this even happen?
Sometimes, films just turn out wrong. Director Brad Furman (“The Lincoln Lawyer”), working from a script by Brian Koppelman and David Levien (“Rounders,” “Ocean’s Thirteen”), presumably set out to make a compelling crime drama set against an unusual backdrop. But what they wound up with is yet another slick and generic tale about a young man who dabbles in a life of crime, discovers it’s not for him and turns on his mentor.
Nothing in the movie rings true, not the FBI agent (Anthony Mackie) willing to break the rules in order to get his man, nor the ambiguous romantic interest (Gemma Arterton) who may be running her own scam, nor the crooked Costa Rican cops and politicians who seem to do nothing other than get drunk with hookers, smoke cigars and wait for their latest bribe money to be delivered.
Movies about poker usually like to bluff and surprise the audience. But “Runner Runner,” which teaches you absolutely nothing about the phenomenon of Internet gambling, doesn’t have a single twist in store. The film is so rote and transparent that you keep waiting for a big reveal or curve — something, anything, that would explain Timberlake and Affleck’s presence here, other than the opportunity to spend several weeks in beautiful Puerto Rico (where the movie was filmed).
Nothing about “Runner Runner” makes sense: Not its R rating, which easily could have been avoided with the removal of a couple of f-bombs; not the intermittent voiceover narration by Timberlake, which is used to plaster over plot holes; not even the participation of Leonardo DiCaprio as one of the film’s producers. Was this an early project he once considered starring in that just never got made?
By the time characters start spouting lines such as “What are you saying? This whole thing is a Ponzi scheme?” desperation has set in. “Runner Runner,” which never even bothers to explain its title (it’s a poker term), may not be the year’s worst movie. But it’s a strong contender for the most boring. Here is a film in which a man is covered in chicken fat and thrown into a pit of crocodiles, and you still can hardly keep your eyes open.