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Runner Runner review: 'Ben Affleck thriller quickly runs out of steam'

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Released on Friday, Sep 27 2013

Director: Brad Furman; Screenwriters: Brian Koppelman, David Levien; Starring: Ben Affleck, Justin Timberlake, Gemma Arterton, Anthony Mackie; Running time: 91 mins; Certificate: 15


Despite what the title suggests, this isn't one of those running around, race-against-time thrillers. The action moves at a breakneck pace, but it all becomes a meaningless blur with Ben Affleck and Justin Timberlake hardly breaking a sweat, except in the sunshine in Costa Rica where they're running a dodgy online gambling empire.

Timberlake is a clever clogs Princeton man, Richie Furst, who is threatened with expulsion after getting caught playing the campus bookie. But he can't be all that smart, because his next best plan to pay his tuition fees is to gamble his life savings online. A montage of TV news reports helpfully informs us that this is a growing problem in the college community, but director Brad Furman (The Lincoln Lawyer) is only paying lip service.

Gemma Arterton and Ben Affleck in 'Runner, Runner'
Inevitably, Richie gets wiped out, but his nouse with numbers means he suspects something fishy about the site and he ventures to Costa Rica (on credit?) to confront owner Ivan Block (Affleck). He's a Gatsby type who throws lavish parties with Ferris wheels and half-dressed women draped here and there. In suitably gracious style, he thanks Furst for drawing his attention to a security issue and offers him a job, seducing him with the promise of a high-rolling lifestyle.

The newsworthy angle is merely a way in to an otherwise formulaic story of corrupt mentor and naïve protégé, which might have worked if only Richie wasn't so easily sucked in. He has few ideals to be compromised or emotional bonds to be tested, and even after he's collared by FBI agent Shavers (a wisecracking Anthony Mackie), he immediately gives Block the benefit of the doubt. His only motivation appears to be money - and more of it. With college plans scrapped, Richie doesn't have a care in the world, so it's difficult to care about him when he starts to feel the squeeze.

Gemma Arterton does pique his interest as Rebecca, Block's right-hand woman (in fact, she has little to do except make eyes at Richie), but their affair doesn't have much currency, or spark. He also has a deadbeat dad with a gambling addiction (John Heard), but that brings little psychological depth to his character. When Richie steps out of line, Block has so few cards to play that he resorts to showing him his personal crocodile collection - and because, if you're going to be a super-villain, you have to accessorise with some sort of man-eating wildlife.

If there is a growing sense of desperation, it only exists behind the camera as Furman runs out of ideas to ramp up the tension. Guns are drawn and the crocs get a taste of human blood, but he still has trouble raising the stakes because, basically, Richie is too shallow. Indeed, the entire cast is short-changed in a film that prioritises cheap thrills over characters you can invest in, and the problem is compounded by a plot that is designed by the numbers.

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