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"Runner Runner" could have been a parody

7 Oct 2013

By Dan Podheiser
When Brian Koppelman and David Levien wrote Rounders in 1998, they did something no one had ever done before: They made poker interesting to a mainstream audience.

If Chris Moneymaker was the spark that created the poker boom in 2003, Rounders was the match that lit the fuse. Fifteen years later, the film is still the seminal work of its kind, loved by poker enthusiasts and novices alike.

To the trained eye, poker scenes in movies are usually cheap, clichéd and often offensively parodic. Sure, some of the poker scenes in Rounders were practically inaccurate, but the meat of the story made sense, and the excellent cast backed it up.

Koppelman and Levien's second foray into the genre doesn't hit that same standard. Runner Runner isn't meant to be a parody film -- but it sure feels like one.

In a nutshell, the film is meant to expose the dangers of an unregulated online gambling market. The American Gaming Association said it plans to use Runner Runner to push Congress to pass federal legislation. Without regulation, the AGA claims, rogue online gambling companies are left to run wild and pick on innocent Americans.

Unfortunately, the only innocent Americans affected by the movie are the ones who spent the $10 to see it.

As if the laughably bad acting weren't enough, the story in Runner Runner was just not very good. Justin Timberlake gives it his all as Princeton student Richie Furst, an online gambling affiliate* who suddenly and inexplicably needs to come up with cash to pay for his tuition. After discovering a super-user ruined his attempt to run up his bankroll on the online gambling site Midnight Black -- a nod to the infamous 2010 Ultimate Bet scandal -- Furst decides to handle the situation with the site's boss, Ivan Block (Ben Affleck).

*Note: For some reason, Furst's "affiliate" business seemed to be entirely through in-person contact. He'd give his Princeton classmates "coupons" to gamble online, and in return he'd get paid by the online casino to which the player was sent. This is not at all how the affiliate business works, as Casino City's Aaron Todd expands upon in his weekly top-10 column.

Block recruits Furst to work for his company, and the film's arc takes Furst through the riggers of the shady industry, from the lavish benefits down to the deadly consequences. As a protagonist, there's really not much for the audience to care about with Furst, whose moral line in the sand doesn't end with blackmailing an affiliate or even with seducing Block's girlfriend, played by Gemma Arterton.

And that is inevitably what kills the film, along with Timberlake's inability to add depth to the character when given the chance. As it turns out, Timberlake simply is not built to star in dramatic, action features, or at least not in every scene. He has the wry wit of a guy you'd root for at all costs. But after 30 minutes of delivering each line as if waiting for a camera to quickly zoom into his face, you begin to wish he's the one that Block covers in chicken fat and dumps into alligator-infested waters.*

*Note: When Affleck's character actually did pour chicken fat on a Costa Rican gambling agent's head and almost fed him to alligators, that was the best part of the film.

Affleck was fine ("meh" would best describe his performance) as Block, an unfair depiction of the real life Calvin Ayre. He's more natural in his delivery than Timberlake, which allowed him to dominate any scene he was in. But his style didn't really fit in with the rest of the cast.

All told, Runner Runner was hardly a story about corruption in unregulated online gambling -- despite also giving reference to the Full Tilt scandal -- and more a battle between two guys: shady and shadier. While it's interesting that the topic of online gambling even gained enough steam to turn into a film, the movie serves no purpose in pushing any sort of debate for federal legislation forward.

If Runner Runner was at least an enjoyable film, the industry would be able to let that part slide.
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