[Screen It]

(2013) (Ben Affleck, Justin Timberlake) (R)

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Thriller: After being cheated by an online gaming website, a Princeton graduate student travels to Costa Rica to confront its enigmatic founder and becomes seduced into a life of crime.
Richie Furst (JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE) is a Princeton graduate student who lost his job on Wall Street when the Great Recession hit in 2008. Mired in student debt, he does side work as an affiliate for major online gambling websites recruiting other students and even some of his professors to bet and bet big online. When the Dean finds out about his activities, he threatens expulsion. With student loans coming due, Richie opts to go online and play numerous rounds of high-stakes poker. For a while, he is up big. But then he gets wiped out and discovers that he was cheated.

Richie does some research and determines that the site was operated by an online gambling mogul named Ivan Block (BEN AFFLECK), who runs all of his businesses in Costa Rica. Richie travels there to confront the man, who blames the glitch on some shady programmers he has since fired. Richie is quickly seduced by Ivan's charm and wealth and agrees to work for him. He is also attracted to Rebecca (GEMMA ARTERTON), Block's beautiful assistant who has been with him from the start.

Soon, though, he comes to realize that Block is involved in some highly illegal activities, including fraud, bribery, and extortion. An FBI agent named Shavers (ANTHONY MACKIE) rides him and tries to get him to flip. When Ivan gets wind of this, he uses Richie's gambling addict father, Harry (JOHN HEARD), as leverage to keep him in line. Costa Rica's corrupt Gaming Commissioner Herrera (YUL VAZQUEZ), meanwhile, threatens to do Richie physical harm if his boss doesn't pay him more money to look the other way. With seemingly no way out, a desperate Richie looks to turn the tables on Ivan and beat him at his own game.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
The new thriller "Runner Runner" has a lot in common with the terrible Liam Hemsworth thriller "Paranoia" that hit theaters a couple of months ago. They both star a young, good-looking, male lunkhead who dreams of great wealth in the post-recession era, but is frozen out and mired in student debt. Both have down-and-out blue collar fathers who couldn't possibly be part of the same gene pool.

Both are seduced into an upper-class game of white collar crime and corruption by an enigmatic, older male role model who the hero idolizes. Both men's fate rests on how easily they are able to seduce the gorgeous young woman who has the confidences of the main villain. And both end up using much smarter friends who are essentially techno-geeks in order to bring about the final comeuppance of the more interesting and better acted bad guy.

One of these films would have been enough. Two of these films in as many months should qualify me for hazard pay. Oh, and they both preach against the trappings of great and despicable wealth ... by filling every second of screen time with the trappings of great and despicable wealth. There are a lot of troubles in this world right now, and folks are looking for escapism.

If your idea of escapism is watching the impossibly good-looking Justin Timberlake and Ben Affleck caressing stacks upon stacks of $100 bills, driving luxury cars, drinking the finest liquor, betting thousands of dollars a pop, and gliding through the posh casinos and resort hotels of Costa Rica ... knock yourself out. Here is your movie. For the rest of us ... well, I hear "The Blacklist" on NBC is pretty entertaining.

"Runner Runner" is a thriller that doesn't want to do the leg work to actually be a good thriller. It's not interested in connecting scenes or believable character arcs. Timberlake's Richie Furst is a Princeton University graduate student who gets bilked out of his tuition money while playing online poker. The gaming site is run by an enigmatic Internet mogul with the '80s villain name of Ivan Block (Affleck), who operates out of Costa Rica. Richie vows to go to Costa Rica to find the guy and get his money back.

Within five minutes, the guy has landed in Costa Rica, effectively gotten Ivan's girlfriend (Gemma Arterton) to fall for him, and wormed his way into a lavish party where Ivan awaits to be confronted. Ivan immediately dismisses the kid. But then two scenes later, he has him employed as his right-hand man and the two are practically towel-snapping each other in the shower.

But all is not what it seems with Ivan and his empire, and soon Richie is being squeezed by both the corrupt Ivan who uses his down-and-out dad as leverage and a snide FBI agent named Shavers (Anthony Mackie) who is not above threatening Richie with Costa Rican prison rape if he doesn't cooperate. The more self-serious the film becomes, the more preposterous it is.

To be fair, this is a better movie than "Paranoia." Timberlake and Affleck are closer in age, and it's much more of a one-on-one battle of the wills. Affleck clearly relishes playing a thoroughly corrupt character here, even though he is saddled with some laughable lines like: "I like to eat what I hunt." Everyone else in the film is playing dress-up, though, and enjoying the warm beach settings.

And at just 90 or so minutes, it really becomes oversimplified in its third act with none of the turn-of-the-screws tension we got in such other similar films as "The Firm" or "No Way Out." There seems to be some chunks cut out of the film, much of them involving a side character named Cronin - a fellow Princeton student Richie recruits when hired by Ivan - who ends up getting all of the goods on Block off-screen, who gets turned by Shavers off-screen, and whose final fate happens ... you guessed it ... off-screen.

You know what else was also happening just off-screen? Me scoffing at this film and yearning for release. This rates no better than a 4 out of 10. (T. Durgin)

Reviewed October 2, 2013 / Posted October 4, 2013

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