Movie Review:Thriller focuses on gambling, lacks substance

Right from the start, “Runner Runner” has two things going wrong for it: 1.) It was released the same day as “Gravity,” an astonishing triumph of cinema and the human will that must be seen by all. And 2.) it’s just a bad movie, regardless of its unfortunate release date.

The film stars Justin Timberlake and Ben Affleck and tries to capture the lavish spirit of the online gambling craze that was apparently a problem for some college campuses a few years ago.

But after an opening montage of real-world news clips, the movie’s belated topicality becomes incidental, a convenient premise to set up an unengaging underdog story about Richie Furst, a man cheated out of his entire savings during one game of online poker.

Except Furst isn’t much of a traditional cinematic underdog, a la Rocky or the kid in “The Karate Kid.” He’s played by Justin Timberlake, whose ineradicable, boyish suave makes him hard to feel bad for. He’s also highly intelligent and capable. He resorts to online poker to pay his tuition at Princeton because his former, very lucrative job on Wall Street makes him unqualified for student loans.

When he finds out he was cheated, he fearlessly flies to Costa Rica to confront Ivan Block (Affleck) – the kingpin of online gambling whose site cheated Furst – to demand his money back.

Impressed with Furst’s ambition and audacity, Block repays him and offers him a high-stakes, high-paying job as well, setting in motion a nightmare employee/employer relationship as Furst begins questioning the ethics of Block’s empire.

“This is your job,” Block screams to Furst in one scene. “You want a clear conscience, go start a charity. But if you want your own island, and your boss says you’ve got to go out there and take a beating, go out there, take it, come back to work, and say ‘Do you need me to do it again?'”

At this point, “Runner Runner” is no longer about poker; it’s a whiny battle of egos and one-upmanship dressed up as a thriller that verges onto the caper genre, even going so far as to reference the style of the “Oceans” movies in one scene. But unlike those films, “Runner Runner” doesn’t give us the satisfaction of seeing the thieves plan or pull off their heist because most of the money involved is stolen electronically.

Thus, all of the potentially interesting scenarios happen off-screen, restricting our point of view to the cheap payoffs instead of showing us how we got there.

For example, Affleck is convincing as an unscrupulous poker mogul, but he’s never given a scene in which to be truly menacing, despite the fact we’re supposed to fear him. Block’s characterization, just like that of every other character, is dictated by an arbitrary voiceover from Furst, instead of allowing his personality to live and breathe, for fear we might grow tired of him.

Which is exactly what happens, despite the charismatic leads and exotic locales.

“Runner Runner,” is all surface, far more concerned with end results than the rewards of process, not unlike the game of poker itself.