Reel Matt

This blog started as my movie marathon — watching a movie a day for a whole year — and has continued as a place for me to write reviews about movies, TV, and various other items.

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Runner Runner

Film #399

THE PLOT

When a poor college student who cracks an online poker game goes bust, he arranges a face-to-face with the man he thinks cheated him, a sly offshore entrepreneur.

Year 2, Film #34

THE REVIEW: In gambling, there’s the saying “The House always wins” and it’s a phrase that comes up a lot in Runner Runner. The title itself is a reference to a poker term. A lot about this film deals with risk: the payoffs and high-life as well as the losses and the scared-for-your-life moments. But while this film has some moments as tense as waiting for “the river” on a close hand of Texas hold ‘em, for the most part the film hits on a soft 17 in blackjack.

Runner Runner has a great beginning that establishes the story well. We’re introduced to Richie Furst (Justin Timberlake) who is a master’s student at Princeton that is an “associate” of an online gambling site, recruiting players and earning a commission off of them. Furst does what most struggling college kids in Hollywood films do — try to find a way to pay for his tuition — but instead of taking out loans or doing something more conservative, he risks his life savings on a game of poker. And of course, there’s a mysterious benefactor, Ivan Block (Ben Affleck) who bails him out of his debt and offers up a life of luxury that must be too good to be true. Block just happens to also be the man behind “Midnight Black”, the site where Furst lost all of his money.

Now you may have noticed my tone in describing these events doesn’t sound like I’m praising the setup. If anything it sounds like I’m bashing it for being overdone and unoriginal. You could very easily make the argument that that’s the case and you would be right. Call me a sucker for gambling films and other high-stakes, life-threatening situations which are very unlikely to happen, but I enjoyed it. And I enjoyed where the film went with it. There was a sense of chance and opportunity that was present that’s often not in other similar films. Runner Runner isn’t about the games themselves, it’s about the business behind it. And more importantly, it’s about how the business itself is just one big gamble of when the authorities will find you and catch you, because it is just a matter of time. While there were a few hands of poker and a few rounds of craps, the film stayed at the executive level: what is Ivan Block doing and what is his master plan?

And I think this story will be interesting to people, who unlike me, don’t have a fascination with card games. It’s filled with your classic action-chase sequences, love story between Furst and Block’s lover Rebecca Shafran (Gemma Arterton), and even a bit mystery/detective work. As a whole, the film succeeds, in large part due to an impressive cast. While I don’t expect any nominations to come from this film, the performances given by Timberlake, Anthony Mackie (who plays FBI Agent Shavers), and especially Affleck, are filled with humor and suspense. For a serious film, there were some really funny moments and all had to do with the delivery given by the actors. Whether it’s Mackie saying, “I went to Rutgers,” or Affleck with, “I realize this isn’t a good time right now,” it makes a decent film where there could have been an unoriginal disaster.

As far as films go, Runner Runner is just your run-of-the-mill fall spectacle. It has some quality entertainment if you choose to go see it, but it’s not so eye-catching that demands you go see it. The story, the characters, the action; they all make for a fun film. But it’s like sitting on a two pair when someone else has a straight — you have a good hand, but you shouldn’t go all in. That’s not smart gambling.

Runner Runner opens in theaters this Friday, October 4, 2013.

THE RATING: 3 out of 5