Ben Affleck has directed three brilliant films, and had a hand in writing two of them (as well as Good Will Hunting). He has an Oscar for best picture, and an Oscar for best screenwriter. Ben Affleck understands what a good movie looks like; he knows how to identity a good screenplay. He’s obscenely wealthy already, has never been more popular, more respected, and more in demand than he is right now. So, the mystery is, why would he choose to make Runner Runner?
It’s not that the film is embarrassing like Gigli or dumb like Surviving Christmas. It’s just that it’s a bad movie, mostly for its blandness and because it feels incomplete, like an outline of a movie that was never filled in. It centers on a guy named Richie Furst (Justin Timberlake), a Princeton graduate student who attempts to earn his tuition through online poker. After he’s clearly cheated by an offshore gambling website, he travels to Costa Rica to confront the owner, Ivan Block (Ben Affleck). Block, who is wanted for various generically criminal misdeeds but has escaped extradition, ends up hiring Furst to do various jobs for the company: Pay off Costa Rican officials, blackmail prospective business associates; and gladhand casino patrons. Furst also develops a relationship with Rebecca Shafran (Gemma Arterton), Block’s business associate and former girlfriend. Meanwhile, there is an FBI Agent (Anthony Mackie), who is trying to shake down Block’s employees for enough information to get Block convicted in Costa Rica since the FBI has no jurisdiction in the country.
How Richie Furst (which is a really dumb name, by the way, especially when it’s spoken aloud) goes from Ivan Block’s right-hand man to Ivan Block’s criminal scapegoat is never really worked out in Runner Runner. Like most of the plot developments in the film, things just happen because they are supposed to happen at that particular point in the film’s timeline. Nothing is earned in Runner Runner; the plot moves from mark to mark, but we don’t really see how it gets to those points. It just does. OK. REASONS. It’s meant to be something of a caper, but a good caper shows you all the steps needed to take to pull off the heist. Here, Furst basically says, “I have a plan. Trust me,” and two scenes later, the plan is executed. There’s no tension; there’s no suspense. There’s no logic to the actions of the characters. The scenes don’t really interact with one another. In some cases, scenes feel like they belong in a different movie, a better movie, maybe the one that Ben Affleck signed on to do.
I don’t know the production history on Runner Runner, but it definitely feels like the kind of film where the script was written on the fly, only screenwriters Brian Koppelman and David Levien forgot to fill in the transitions. It’s like they wrote one scene on Monday, and another scene on Tuesday, but they never bothered to link the two scenes together.
Affleck’s performance is fine, I guess, although Timberlake suffers, as he often does when called upon to act instead of flirt (he’s a really good flirt). Meanwhile, Arterton does a remarkable job of standing around in cleavage-baring dresses, although to call it acting would be unfair to her breasts, which do all the work.
Runner Runner is really bad movie, but not really bad enough to work a stink up over. I’m less concerned with the quality of Runner Runner than what it means for Affleck, who I would hate to see throw away his second chance at a career like Travolta did in the post-Tarantino years. Maybe Runner Runner is an aberration, or a favor for a friend or maybe it is a paycheck role. If that’s the case, I’d hate to see Affleck climb so high and end up once again making the same mistakes that nearly destroyed his career the first time around.