Runner Runner, the new film starring acting heavyweight Justin Timberlake (minus the dancing tofu costume), opens with a voiceover explaining that everything is a risk. You see, Richie Furst (Timberlake) was on the verge of having it made on Wall Street when everything collapsed due to bankers’ greed. Now, he’s just a gifted but broke Princeton grad student struggling to get his degree. Oh, you say, so this movie is going to detail the injustice of a legal code that outlaws casinos yet lets bankers make millions with your money? No. Keep reading.
Richie is broke and he needs to earn his tuition money—he turns to online gambling, something he knows a lot about because he’s an affiliate, someone who pushes gamers to sites for a commission. But it’s okay. He knows what he’s doing. He knows the odds and is playing poker using statistics. Oh, so this movie is going to be like Moneyball for poker? Sorry, no.
Unfortunately, Richie loses all his money when the guy on the other side of the internet connection repeatedly doesn’t fold when he should. Richie runs a statistical analysis with a fellow math geek and determines that the website he was playing on was rigged. Wait, wait, I’ve got it—he’s got to play all-out high stakes poker to make his money back like Matt Damon in Rounders! No again. (Warning: Spoilers ahead.)
To get his money back, Richie heads down to Costa Rica to confront the owner of the site, Ivan Block (Ben Affleck), who is wanted for racketeering in the U.S. When Richie shows the statistical analysis to Block, the gaming kingpin offers him a job. Richie describes his role over a montage of people pulling money out of casino safes: “I was in. He gave me the run of the place, got a look at how the sausage is made, even let me bring in my own people. He needed some Princeton math so I gave it to him. $30 billion and I was there to make sure we got our piece.” Wow. Sounds exciting. That’s pretty much all I learned about online gambling and/or poker from this film. Richie got to see the proverbial sausage, but we sure didn’t.1
Will he cooperate with the FBI? Can he trust the woman with the British accent? I could tell you, but you can probably figure out the answers on your own.
Richie is at first attracted by the island living, the island women and the island drinking. But, slowly, he sees the dark side behind Block’s enterprise, realizing, “Hey, maybe there’s a reason he’s wanted for racketeering.” Soon, the FBI (in the form of Anthony Mackie) is after him. Plus, there’s a love interest (former Bond girl Gemma Arterton) who works closely with Block. Will he cooperate with the FBI? Can he trust the woman with the British accent? I could tell you, but you can probably figure out the answers on your own.
One might have had higher hopes for Runner Runner, which was written by the same team who did Rounders (Brian Koppelman and David Levian). Rounders is by no means a great film. It suffers from bad dialogue and telegraphed plot points, but most people can overlook its shortcomings because the poker is so fun to watch. For this reason, it has become something of a cult classic and is credited with helping to push poker into the spotlight in the early 2000s. In 1998, when Rounders came out, poker was still very much an underground activity. Now, it is a staple of ESPN and millions of people play it online or with their friends. Yet poker websites and their financial workings are shrouded in mystery. With several recent laws restricting online gaming, Runner Runner had a chance to pull back the curtain. It didn’t take it. Instead, Koppelman and Levian (along with director Brad Furman) turned a movie that could have been about poker into a paint-by-numbers thriller. Runner Runner teases us at the beginning, through bad exposition and weighty voiceovers, into thinking it is going somewhere interesting. It’s bluffing.
- You wouldn’t know it, but “runner runner” is a poker term, which Wikipedia defines as “a hand made by hitting two consecutive cards on the turn and river”. The film mentions it briefly but isn’t interested enough in its own title to fully explain the concept to the audience. [↩]