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‘Runner Runner’: Poker players fall into familiar patterns


Richie Furst Justin Timberlake

Rebecca Shafran Gemma Arterton

Shavers Anthony Mackie

Ivan Block Ben Affleck

20th Century Fox presents a film directed by Brad Furman and written by Brian Koppelman and David Levien. Running time: 91 minutes. Rated R (for language and some sexual content). Opens Friday at local theaters.

Updated: April 14, 2014 4:49PM

All the best poker movies feature tense, life-changing showdowns, with our hero staring across the table at his seemingly unbeatable foe.

Think Edward G. Robinson with the straight flush against Steve McQueen in “The Cincinnati Kid,” or Matt Damon trapping the Oreo-twisting John Malkovich in “Rounders.”

Justin Timberlake’s Richie is a poker whiz (among other things) in “Runner Runner,” and Ben Affleck’s Ivan Block (now there’s a name) is his foe-turned-friend-turned-foe, but we don’t see a single hand of traditional poker played out in this glossy, light thriller.

“Runner Runner” is about the world of online poker, and though we do get one extended sequence in which Richie “multi-tables” at his computer while a group of overacting extras — I mean, fellow Princeton students — cheer him on, the gambling world is merely the setup for a standard-issue thriller that plays like “Wall Street” with guns in Costa Rica.

Affleck has the Michael Douglas role as the law-skirting Ivan, whose online poker company is raking in $750,000 per day in “rake fees,” i.e., the small commission the site takes out of every single hand played by hundreds of thousands of players the world over. Timberlake has the Charlie Sheen part as Richie, who talks his way into Ivan’s inner circle and soon becomes his most trusted confidante.

We even have John Heard in the Martin Sheen role as Richie’s Dad, and Gemma Arterton essentially playing the part Daryl Hannah had in “Wall Street” — the tall and gorgeous creature who falls in love with Richie, and yes, she had a thing with Ivan back in the day.

Richie is a Princeton grad student who loses his entire online poker bankroll playing “fish” (easily beatable opponents) who, against all odds, seem to know exactly what cards he’s holding. That’s because they DO know what cards he’s holding. They’re cheating.

So Richie gets on a plane to Costa Rica, one of the many offshore headquarters of online gambling sites operated by American entrepreneurs in self-imposed exile from the States, where this whole online gambling thing is frowned upon, and confronts Ivan with the evidence. Ivan feigns ignorance, thanks Richie for not going public with the information — and offers Richie the chance to stay in Costa Rica and learns the ropes, with the promise of a “ten-figure income” within three years.

This is one of the many times in which Richie can either gamble or play it safe and do the right thing. I think you know which way he plays it.

The script by Brian Koppelman and David Levien (who wrote “Rounders,” still the best poker movie ever) indicates high-level knowledge of the inner workings of the online gambling world, and director Brad Furman delivers suitably enticing visuals of the sun, surf, sand and sex of Costa Rica. We can see how Richie could be blinded to some obvious pitfalls as he rakes in the cash, basks in the glow of Ivan’s charm and power — and falls for Gemma Arterton’s Rebecca, who seems to have an endless supply of tight dresses as she engages Richie in verbal foreplay.

But after an intriguing setup, “Runner Runner” devolves into a by-the-books thriller with Richie paired off against Ivan in a race against the clock and the FBI agent (Anthony Mackie) who talks as if his entire vocabulary was programmed by watching TV crime dramas and B-movies.

Timberlake’s OK here, as he is in just about every film he does — but there’s no movie-star punch to him. He doesn’t carry the same charisma as, say, a young Leonardo DiCaprio. As for Affleck, he’s well suited to the slick mogul side of Ivan — but when it’s time for Ivan to go dark, the menace just doesn’t feel authentic.

When Ivan compares what he does to the companies that sell $250 gym shoes, “Runner Runner” shines. When Ivan tells Richie to man up: great speech. It’s like a promising starting hand in Texas Hold ’Em. This could go somewhere!

But as each succeeding card is revealed, that starting hand shrinks to the point of mediocrity.


Twitter: @richardroeper

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