Ben Affleck makes for a pretty good jerk, but he can’t pull off outright villainy. That’s probably the main problem with the crime thriller Runner Runner, a throwback to films like The Firm and The Devil’s Advocate and Wall Street in which hungry, impressionable hotshots got sucked into alluringly deviant businesses. (Earlier this summer, the corporate-espionage flick Paranoia tried to mine similar territory, but it disappeared into the empty hole where its star Liam Hemsworth should have been.) But Affleck is chummy where he should be sleazy, dickish where he should be monstrous. A bro-compliant version of Gordon Gekko, it turns out, is no Gordon Gekko at all.
Our hero is Richie Furst (Justin Timberlake), a former Wall Street whiz kid who lost everything in the crash and now toils as a grad student at Princeton, paying for his tuition by working as a freelance affiliate for an online gambling empire run out of Costa Rica by the mysterious Ivan Block (Affleck). When he loses a ton of money one desperate night on what appears to be a rigged game, Richie runs the numbers and jaunts off to Central America to confront Ivan with the proof. The latter, impressed by the kid’s determination, hires him, luring him with promises of six- and seven-figure paydays as far as the eye can see.
Of course, we know Ivan is dirty; we saw him bribing two U.S politicians with hookers before Richie ever got to Costa Rica. So the suspense lies not in wondering what Ivan is up to, but in watching Richie get sucked into this money- and sex-drenched world. But director Brad Furman, who made the solid, similarly old-fashioned thriller The Lincoln Lawyer a couple of years ago, is too methodical, and he pulls back too much here. While we get numerous scenes of gorgeous women in bikinis and all-night parties featuring fire-breathing dancers and giant carnival masks and whatnot, we never quite lose ourselves in the debauchery. (Michael Mann and Martin Scorsese are the masters of this, but you don’t need to be them to pull it off.) Meanwhile, the film portrays Richie as a bit too savvy to be a self-deluded mark; he’s more a Bud Light guy than a single-malt guy, which in movie speak means he’s smarter and more down-to-earth than everybody else. When the FBI shows up, in the person of the wisecracking Agent Shavers (Anthony Mackie, who gets all the film’s best lines), Richie’s refusal to help them feels hollow.
Still, it might have all worked if Affleck could muster up the requisite oily charm to make his character and his world irresistible, or if Timberlake made for a more compellingly desperate hero. But the two seem so off that you actively start to re-cast the movie as you watch it. What if Ivan were older, more aloof, or Richie a bit dumber, hungrier? Late in the film, when Ivan decries Richie’s “younger generation,” you start to genuinely wonder if the role was written for an older actor. With Affleck, it gets an unintentional laugh.
Runner Runner isn’t entirely terrible. There’s a fairly solid idea in here somewhere, and the script by Brian Koppelman and David Levien — who wrote the beloved-by-poker-aficionados gambling thriller Rounders — features lots of seemingly smart dialogue about “non-weighted game theory” and “short-term variants.” (I say “seemingly,” because, being neither a poker fiend nor a statistician, I’m too stupid to tell whether it’s actually smart.) But maybe the movie is too smart for its own good. At one point, we see Ivan feeding whole raw chickens to his pet crocodiles. We know the crocodiles will come into play later in the film; I won’t say what actually happens, but what does transpire is somehow both predictable and flaccid. You want the movie to get outrageous, but it’s too dignified to go there. Much like its central villain, it can’t decide what it wants to be.