Review: RUNNER RUNNER, Flush With Hollywood Contrivances

Jason Gorber, Featured Critic
Oh, Hollywood. Just as festival season wraps up for us here in Toronto, you give us this false sense that things are all good in the cinematic world. Last week gave us Rush, this week Gravity, two extraordinary films, among the best of this or any other year.

And then, crushingly, we're reminded of the usual dreck that's produced throughout the year. For Runner Runner isn't terrible enough to be simply ignored, it's that even more annoying film that's entirely capable of being good, but executed so poorly that it's even more frustrating, somehow. Consider it a cause of a misguided affection for the magic of good cinema, I'm more torn by films that are shit not because they never had a chance (ahem...) but by those that simply squander an almost decent idea by solidly trying to appease the middle ground.

Again, the ingredients are there - despite his dilettante air, I actually think Justin Timberlake is entirely capable of being a strong actor. That said, save for a few choices (I'm thinking The Social Network, and remain dying to see Inside Llewyn Davis), he's made a pretty rough go of it on the big screen. The film rests upon his performance, and it's by no means the most egregious part of the film. He's playing the Princeton student-who-gets-co-opted-by-Caribbean-gambling-kingpin sucker with the appropriate level of aplomb, and certainly seems comfortable in his expensive suits wandering through tedious social engagements.

With Ben Affleck of late, we've seen more refined performances than his "you were the bomb in Phantoms" days. This role, however, hearkens back more to Pearl Harbor than it does Argo, with Big Ben simply unable to convincingly pull off the Pacino-like histrionics without devolving into parody.

We get to see some exotic shots of resorts and fancy cars, there's a heist-y element that almost feels like it's going somewhere. There's a beautiful and exotic girl (Gemma Arterton), a hard nosed cop way out of his jurisdiction (Anthony Mackie), and a bunch of sidekick characters who speak only in rarefied expositional tones.

And then, right in the middle, there's that thud, that thing that drives me nuts. The plot point where somebody learns something, somebody calls to say what that thing is and then cryptically, for the sake of either suspense or (more overtly) lazy storytelling, keeps it from both the character and the audience. I've long tried to think of a better way of describing it than "fuck you" plotting, but for now that'll suffice.

The worst part in this film is that pulling the"fuck you" grenade is totally unnecessary - the subplot regarding the shady underbelly of an online casino is hardly relevant when there are far more overt signs, from chicken-fat teased reptiles to overt bribery. You'd almost hope that there'd be some comeuppance for all involved, but the story (spoiler!) is even more lazy on this front.

The title Runner Runner refers to that 4.2% chance you have at a poker table of hitting runner runner flush after the initial cards are dealt. Any poker player will know that initial set of cards is known as the "flop," a fair description for this film with even longer odds at finding an appreciative audience.
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