2.5/5 stars

When you hear that there’s a new crime and action thriller with a gorgeous cast, you’re led to expect a pretty great film. Justin Timberlake and Ben Affleck starring in a fast-paced drama about the underworld of online gambling? Sounds like a winner. So it’s a real shame that the plot didn’t manage to come close to matching the standards of the cast or the beautiful Costa Rica set.

Runner, Runner follows the story of Richie Furst (Justin Timberlake), a statistical genius and Princeton student, who has been chucked out of Wall Street and has been paying his way by promoting online gambling. When the site he has been working for cheats him, he decides to go to Costa Rica to confront the exiled owner, Ivan Block (Ben Affleck), and finds himself tempted by the criminal world of bribery and extortion. When confronted by the stereotypical tough FBI cop, Richie is forced to choose between keeping his luxury life with Block or helping to bring him down. And since any crime movie would be incomplete without a beautiful woman, Gemma Arterton is thrown in as Block’s sexy secretary who lures Richie in with her tight dresses and bronzed face.

The plot is promising — a unique take on a crime thriller exploring the lesser-known criminality of the online gambling world. But instead of being shocking in an intriguing way, the ugliness is just plain ugly, and what should shock just appears ridiculous. Part of Block’s villain persona is his use of alligators to threaten his enemies. It sounds like a component of a good Bond movie, but in reality, it just makes you cringe. It ends up becoming The Great Gatsby meets the 21st century, with theglamour gone and the corruption exaggerated. There are the parties, with Deadmau5 instead of jazz and strippers instead of glamorous actresses; there are the criminals, promoting murder, abuse and millions of dollars worth of extortion; and there is overwhelming excess, which just looks cold and hard and plain awful.

What saves this film from its disastrous plot is the cast. Affleck plays a deliciously horrible villain with a taste for destruction and a master-of-the-universe attitude. He delivers some of the best lines: When convincing Furst to blackmail a man, he tells him, “That little voice in the back of your head right now isn’t your conscience. It’s fear.” He is an extremely believable villain, the convincing outcome of a city boy’s lust for wealth and power gone too far, leaving the audience both intrigued and disgusted by him at the same time. Affleck plays him with a subtle complexity that contrasts nicely with the obvious direction of the plot. Timberlake plays the protagonist well too, if a little too dramatically. It is a shame that the script doesn’t give the audience more time to feel some connection to him at the start: Five minutes in, he’s already heading off to Costa Rica to start his descent into the criminal world. The role demands such intensity from him from the start that by the end, the close-ups of him are pretty exhausting. The sometimes-forced dramatics conflict with the almost arbitrary incorporation of comical lines by other characters. As he is leaving Princeton, Furst passionately explains to his roommate that he has to leave because his life depends on it, but his intensity is only met with dry, sarcastic comments and witty one-liners. It’s a shame Timberlake wasn’t given any of the comedy, especially as he has proved that he can play the funny guy in Friends With Benefits. Instead, as the movie wraps up, you are left unsatisfied, not sure whether you sympathize with or even like Timberlake’s character. And if you don’t like Furst, then it’s not clear exactly who you are supposed to side with in this criminal affair.

Affleck and Timberlake are, in every sense, the stars of this film, and if you can be satisfied by watching them act for 91 minutes, then this film is worth the time. However, they are sorely let down by their script, which confuses thriller with comedy and shocking with ridiculous. At the very least, it will give you nightmares of being chased by alligators and scare you off online gambling for life. Otherwise, it just leaves you pretty disappointed.

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