Skip to main content

You smell like an affiliate.

Runner Runner
(2013)

There are plenty of decent gambling movies. It’s a natural subject for offering conflict and drama, winners and losers. Most follow well-established structural rules that take in mentors and apprentices, arch-nemeses and addicted best pals. It should actually be surprising if you are unable to eke a certain amount of tension from any given scenario, be it pool or cards; there’s an ever bountiful fountain of slow-burning tension on tap, as the protagonist dutifully gets in over their head. Writers Brian Koppleman and David Levien managed it with Rounders, a patchy affair that sagged under the weight of its clichés but ultimately won through on the strength of its casting. Runner Runner has no such luck.


Justin Timberlake is, at best, a passable screen presence, in that he’s been okay in a few things where he was either musically inclined (Inside Llewyn Davis) or the object of derision (Bad Teacher). But he isn’t a reliable dramatic presence (he was the weak link in the otherwise very good The Social Network), and he’s very far from being a movie star. Aside from his lack of chops, his screen presence is lacklustre; naturally unsympathetic and a bearing a vague untrustworthiness. It might be those pointy eyes. Perhaps Brad Furman and his casting directors were subconsciously conscious of this, and thought he’d be perfect for Richie Furst (this movie has awful character names; they might work if it was a comedy), the morally suspect Princeton masters student who runs a scam to get undergraduates to sign up to online gambling websites (the opening credits informing us of the wash of student gambling addictions is as close the picture comes to relevance, despite repeated attempts to summon the spectre of the global financial crisis). Richie used to have a Wall Street career, so he’s straightaway one of the enemy, and when he is danger of being expelled for non-payment of fees he risks everything in an online poker game. And loses. But wait a minute; he could tell the game was rigged. Because he’s brainy. So Richie sets off to Costa Rica to confront the owner of Midnight Black (the website), one Ivan Block (Ben Affleck).


Yes, Ivan Block. Good grief. So Timberlake is the Charlie Sheen to Affleck’s… Michael Douglas (his dialogue is very much sub-Gordon Gecko ruthless). Credit to Ben for attempting to ascend to the summit of the elder supporting man/villain, but he never really nailed the leading roles to start with. The result is two listless performances at the centre of the picture. Timberlake, twitchy and nasal, is in thrall to Big Beefy Ben. Who seems to have decided a rash of stubble will make do for characterisation (this is definitely one where he’s acting with his lantern jaw). I don’t mind Affleck per se, but whenever he’s onscreen I can’t help but instantly think there’s someone better they could have cast. There’s a blunt, dulled quality to him. Bringing up the rear is poor Gemma Arterton in the PA/girlfriend part of Rebecca (we’re told she built this business with Ivan, but neither she nor the script is selling the idea). Still Gemma got a free tan out of it, so it’s not all bad. John Heard, as Richie’s dad, has about two scenes. He got off lightly.


Richie has his foot in the door and succumbs to Ivan’s offer of an “in” on his flashy lifestyle. So we run through the standard plays of seduction (money and girls), intimations of dodgy dealings (Anthony Mackie as an FBI agent attempting to secure Richie’s services) and finally disillusionment as the devil’s dealings are revealed in full. It’s not necessarily what you do with this kind of movie, it’s the way that you do it. And director Brad Furman is all at sea, with only Mauro Fiore’s burnished photography of Puerto Rico (doubling) to stamp any personality on the proceedings. If there was any snappy patter in here it’s buried by the faint performers. There are references to Ponzi schemes, to underline Block’s nefariousness, but we understood he was actually a wannabe Bond villain as soon as we were introduced to his pet crocodiles. Richie’s eventual discovery of a conscience (that voice in his head is not fear, it’s his conscience; they liked the line so much, they used it twice!) is largely unconvincing because Timberlake is unable to convey genuine penitence (he’s also rewarded for his vague good deeds, par for the course in this sort of thing but uncomfortable when the lead fails to garner sympathy). The worst thing about a scam movie is for the scam to leave you shrugging, and nothing in the final act twists leaves any impression. Firstly because we don’t give a hoot about anyone here, and a secondly because the intrigues are so incredibly weak they barely register.


I wasn’t terribly convinced by Brad Furman’s last film, The Lincoln Lawyer. It may have been instrumental in Matthew McConaughey’s career comeback, and it possessed a decent enough script, but Furman seemed to do everything he could to work against its dramatic potential. He’s more pedestrian in his approach here, but no more successful in securing our interest. As for the leads, it will be interesting to see whether David Fincher can elicit an acceptable Affleck turn with the upcoming Gone Girl. He generally has a sure touch, but he isn’t infallible (Timberlake, Jake Gyllenhaal). Timberlake, well it’s hard to see him eking out a reputable career as a muso-turned-actor on the level of, say Wahlberg. Casting youthful-ish leads in this kind of morality tale, who lack substance, brings to mind the late ‘80s-early ‘90s trend for Brat Packers in iconic roles. Those were probably more misses than hits (Mobsters) but invariably there was someone with some genuine charisma in the line up (Emilio Estevez, for example). Runner Runner is sunk by a tired script, indifferently directed and performed gracelessly by bland leads.



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Maybe the dingo ate your baby.

Seinfeld 2.9: The Stranded The Premise George and Elaine are stranded at a party in Long Island, with a disgruntled hostess.

Nanobots aren’t just for Christmas.

No Time to Die (2021) (SPOILERS) You know a Bond movie is in trouble when it resorts to wholesale appropriation of lines and even the theme song from another in order to “boost” its emotional heft. That No Time to Die – which previewed its own title song a year and a half before its release to resoundingly underwhelmed response, Grammys aside – goes there is a damning indictment of its ability to eke out such audience investment in Daniel Craig’s final outing as James (less so as 007). As with Spectre , the first half of No Time to Die is, on the whole, more than decent Bond fare, before it once again gets bogged down in the quest for substance and depth from a character who, regardless of how dapper his gear is, resolutely resists such outfitting.

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

Big things have small beginnings.

Prometheus (2012) Post- Gladiator , Ridley Scott opted for an “All work and no pondering” approach to film making. The result has been the completion of as many movies since the turn of the Millennium as he directed in the previous twenty years. Now well into his seventies, he has experienced the most sustained period of success of his career.  For me, it’s also been easily the least-interesting period. All of them entirely competently made, but all displaying the machine-tooled approach that was previously more associated with his brother.

Beer is for breakfast around here. Drink or begone.

Cocktail (1988) (SPOILERS) When Tarantino claims the 1980s (and 1950s) as the worst movie decade, I’m inclined to invite him to shut his butt down. But should he then flourish Cocktail as Exhibit A, I’d be forced to admit he has a point. Cocktail is a horrifying, malignant piece of dreck, a testament to the efficacy of persuasive star power on a blithely rapt and undiscerning audience. Not only is it morally vacuous, it’s dramatically inert. And it relies on Tom’s toothy charms to a degree that would have any sensitive soul rushed to the A&E suffering from toxic shock (Tom’s most recently displayed toothy charms will likely have even his staunchest devotees less than sure of themselves, however, as he metamorphoses into your favourite grandma). And it was a huge box office hit.

Isn’t sugar better than vinegar?

Femme Fatale (2002) (SPOILERS) Some have attempted to rescue Femme Fatale from the dumpster of critical rejection and audience indifference with the claim that it’s De Palma’s last great movie. It isn’t that by a long shot, but it might rank as the last truly unfettered display of his obsessions and sensibilities, complete with a ludicrous twist – so ludicrous, it’s either a stroke of genius or mile-long pile up.

It's something trying to get out.

The Owl Service (1969-70) I may have caught a glimpse of Channel 4’s repeat of  The Owl Service  in 1987, but not enough to stick in the mind. My formative experience was Alan Garner’s novel, which was read several years earlier during English lessons. Garner’s tapestry of magical-mythical storytelling had an impact, with its possession theme and blending of legend with the here and now. Garner depicts a Britain where past and present are mutable, and where there is no safety net of objective reality; life becomes a strange waking dream. His fantasy landscapes are both attractive and disturbing; the uncanny reaching out from the corners of the attic.  But I have to admit that the themes of class and discrimination went virtually unnoticed in the wake of such high weirdness. The other Garner books I read saw young protagonists transported to fantasy realms. The resonance of  The Owl Service  came from the fragmenting of the rural normal. When the author notes that he neve

Who’s got the Figgy Port?

Loki (2021) (SPOILERS) Can something be of redeemable value and shot through with woke (the answer is: Mad Max: Fury Road )? The two attributes certainly sound essentially irreconcilable, and Loki ’s tendencies – obviously, with new improved super-progressive Kevin Feige touting Disney’s uber-agenda – undeniably get in the way of what might have been a top-tier MCU entry from realising its full potential. But there are nevertheless solid bursts of highly engaging storytelling in the mix here, for all its less cherishable motivations. It also boasts an effortlessly commanding lead performance from Tom Hiddleston; that alone puts Loki head and shoulders above the other limited series thus far.

These are not soda cans you asked me to get for you.

The Devil’s Own (1997) (SPOILERS) Naturally, a Hollywood movie taking the Troubles as a backdrop is sure to encounter difficulties. It’s the push-pull of wanting to make a big meaningful statement about something weighty, sobering and significant in the real world and bottling it when it comes to the messy intricacies of the same. So inevitably, the results invariably tend to the facile and trite. I’m entirely sure The Devil’s Own would have floundered even if Harrison Ford hadn’t come on board and demanded rewrites, but as it is, the finished movie packs a lot of talent to largely redundant end.

Did you not just hand over a chicken to someone?

The Father (2020) (SPOILERS) I was in no great rush to see The Father , expecting it to be it to be something of an ordeal in the manner of that lavishly overpraised euthanasia-fest Amour. As with the previous Oscars, though, the Best Picture nominee I saw last turned out to be the best of the bunch. In that case, Parasite , its very title beckoning the psychic global warfare sprouting shoots around it, would win the top prize. The Father , in a year of disappointing nominees, had to settle for Best Actor. Ant’s good, naturally, but I was most impressed with the unpandering manner in which Florian Zeller and Christopher Hampton approached material that might easily render one highly unstuck.