Saturday, October 12, 2013

Running Scared

Remember a few weeks ago, when Ben Affleck was named as the new Bruce Wayne in the upcoming Batman vs Superman? How half the fanboys on planet Earth convulsed in unison and proclaimed that it was the worst casting choice in existence, referencing decade-old schlock fests Gigli and Daredevil as proof? Well, Runner Runner just did its best to prove those internet doubters correct. Despite taking one of Hollywood's most improved actors - along with Affleck's directorial credits for The Town and Argo - and teaming him up with an already-impressive feature director (The Lincoln Lawyer's Brad Furman), the result ought to have been something special. So why does this film have the reek of disappointment from beginning to end?

Desperate to succeed at Princeton, Richie Furst (Justin Timberlake) attempts to make up the difference between his life savings and what school will actually cost by gambling online, using his talents at math and probability to excel in the early goings. But when faceless cheats hack the software and rob him electronically, he embarks on a journey to Costa Rica, where he plans to confront the gambling web site's mogul Ivan Block (Ben Affleck) about the burglary. Ivan assures Richie that the theft was due to rogue programmers who had written a backdoor into the system for their own gains, and not only does he reimburse Richie his losses, but offers Princeton's star pupil a spot in his organization. Looking to rebound from old failures, Richie accepts, but the more he learns about Ivan Block and his less-than-ethical business practices, the less sure he is that he should stick around for the long term.
It was just the beginning... of the end.
As I mentioned before, under the tutelage of Furman, Runner Runner should have been much, MUCH better than the shrug-inducing "thriller" we were delivered. So what went wrong? Well, while the story does involve some unique aspects - most notably online poker and the exotic Costa Rican setting - very little is actually done with those items beyond background noise. As a result we get a run-of-the-mill suspense film, disappointing as the screenplay came from Brian Koppelman and David Levien, the duo behind crime thrillers Rounders, Runaway Jury and Oceans Thirteen. It's also a shocker for Furman, whose excessive editing and lack of balanced storytelling keeps the plot from being as engaging as it could have possibly been.
If this man is your star, you've got serious problems.
But the biggest problems for Runner Runner (besides the fact that hardly anybody would realize the meaning of the title) are easily on the casting front. The fact of the matter is, nobody should be handing leading man jobs to Justin Timberlake. The former 'N Sync frontman does have some talent as a performer thanks to his natural charisma, but with a lack of any other acting skills, he's better suited to supporting roles (like his part in The Social Network), where he doesn't have to be ON 100% of the time. Even getting past the part where he doesn't look nearly young enough to pass for a college student (not even the grad school student the film tries to say he is) is the excessive gesturing and facial expressions he expresses that a good movie actor does his best to tone down; Timberlake meanwhile shows more frenetic energy than Shia LeBoeuf on caffeine. Others come off slightly better; despite what could have been an over-the-top farce, Affleck does a good enough job in the antagonist role to sort-of make up for Timberlake's mistakes. As acting jobs go, tt's still a step down from his more recent roles, but that may have more to do with the material Affleck was given, and not an actual dip in his talent. The side characters range from cliched to ridiculous, however, with most of Gemma Arterton's pay going towards tanning lotion, and Anthony Mackie frustrating as he continues to play one-note characters after his 2009 breakout The Hurt Locker. Weak dialogue doesn't help any of them, and at least energy is put into their performances, but rarely this year has such a potentially-strong cast been misused so badly and to such detriment to the movie.
So THAT'S how Bruce Wayne made his billions!
So yes, Runner Runner is a poorly-named, terribly-paced disappointment. You could go in for a brainless diversion, I suppose, but there are already more than enough alternatives in theaters that are a lot better in execution than Furman's film could hope to have achieved. Go see Don Jon. Go see Riddick. DEFINITELY go see Gravity. Heck, go see Machete Kills (review forthcoming) if you're so inclined. But there's really no reason to waste your time here. It's just not worth the time, and the Batman of the future deserved better.

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