The House Always Wins, But Here, It’s Not As Often As You Would Hope.

Director: BRAD FURMAN/2013

While movies such as Oceans Eleven, and its subsequent sequels, have shown gambling to be a high profile, and classy pursuit with huge payoffs, very few films have looked at the dark side of this industry.  This is especially true with regards of a look towards internet gaming.  Through the internet, the ability to take people’s hard earned cash has removed the need to travel to places like Vegas where desperate people try to hit it big and score with free drinks and a dream (See The Lost Dogs‘ song for an apt description of this pursuit).  Instead, the game now comes to you, yet with one very consistent feature that you will find in the posh casinos of Vegas: The House always wins.

Runner Runner is the story of Ritchie Furst (Justin Timberlake), a man enrolled in college, who is just trying to make ends meet. While pursuing a master’s degree, he is also a man who steers people towards internet gambling sites for a commission, including the occasional college professor.  Having been found out by the dean, of his illegal activities, Ritchie is faced with being kicked out of school.  Without an income now to pay for tuition, he acts in desperation, playing poker on an internet gambling site.  Having steered so many clients there, he believes he can make his money work for him and earn enough to pay off the school bill in order to get to graduation.  What he discovers is that the site is cheating him and has stolen all of his money.  Now desperate and broke, Ritchie jets off to Costa Rica to inform the game site’s owner, Ivan Block (Ben Affleck), that his site is cheating people.  Normally this kind of publicity could shut a site down, but because Ritchie goes to him directly instead of trying to crash his business, Block hires Ritchie.  It turns out, however, that the job is more than Ritchie bargained for.  Despite the 7-figure income, and the paradise that surrounds him, Ritchie is going to see that the dark side of internet gambling is a noose around his neck.

The film is supported with lots of star power.  Ben Affleck gets to spread his wings playing a shady owner whose greed and ability to use others stands in sharp contrast to the superhero he will be playing in the upcoming Batman vs. Superman film.  I found myself distracted by his performance in this film, not because he is sub-par, in fact he is quite good in this type of role.  But the reason I was distracted was because I was constantly trying to picture him in the role of the caped crusader as I watched this film.  Despite Runner Runner being filmed prior to the Batman casting announcement, this film will be in theaters under the shadow of the vitriol that was unleashed on the internet when his casting was announced.  This vitriol is still bubbling under the surface and this may have some affect on the ability of this film to gain traction at the box office.  This would be unfair, but is still a possible reality.

To balance this possibility, having Justin Timberlake in the lead role is a strong deterrent to those who might boycott this film simply out of a way of sticking it to Affleck.  Timberlake is really growing in his ability to act, and this may be the best role for him yet.  With a wide character arc, we get to see some range in his abilities that haven’t been showcased too often in the past.  I believe that he is making the transition from singer to actor look like a smooth one.  While he lacks the obvious humorous charm that Ryan Reynolds exudes in his films, Timberlake, in Runner Runner, is actually taking the type of role that Reynolds should be looking for these days.  But I digress.

Gemma Arterton plays Rebecca Shafran, a colleague of Ivan Block, and a love interest of both Block and Furst.  She is given a little bit more to do through this character than she was able to do in her bit role as Strawberry Fields in the James Bond film, Quantum of Solace, or in her turn in The Prince of Persia.  Despite her efforts, this character seems vastly underdeveloped when compared to the possibilities we glimpse throughout the film.  We never learn directly what her true role is in the company, or get to see her own manipulation and greed like we do from Ben Affleck’s character.  Though there are references to a much deeper backstory that may impact her relationship with Timberlake’s character, Faust, we are simply given the cliff’s notes version as a means of keeping the action moving.  Had this, as well as some other relationships between characters, been explored more, this film would have been much more compelling. That being said, it was still entertaining enough.

One strong theme that runs through this film is the detriment of being desperate.  Each character’s desperation gives power to those who would manipulate them for their own selfish gain.  No one is immune here.  Those who seek to escape the web of greed, power, and manipulation find themselves in a bad way.  The name of the game is leverage. Rather than push the envelope with this theme, Runner Runner is content to let a pretty formulaic by-the-numbers film emerge.  Nothing really catches you by surprise.  The portrayal of the FBI, the crooked Costa Rican gaming officials and police, and the down-and-out father figure have been done before.  Fortunately for us, the pace of the film and the strong performances of the cast will at least entertain you, and provide you with a side of the internet gaming industry that maybe you haven’t seen before. The house always wins, but here, not as often as you would hope.