You can't knock Ben Affleck for wanting to have a little mindless fun. Over the last three years, the once-shamed Hollywood A-lister has been on a reputation improvement mission, directing Oscar bait movies like The Town and Argo and working with acclaimed filmmakers like Terrence Malick (in To the Wonder). He's come a long way from the days of Bennifer, Gigli, Surviving Christmas, and being the brunt of everyone's movie-centric jokes; he's more than earned the right to flip all of those one-time haters off now, or, if he's feeling super crass, wallop them upside their heads with one of his Academy Award statues. Not even the wrath incurred by angry comic book sticklers over the recent, polarizing news that Affleck will play the Caped Crusader in director Zack Snyder's Superman vs. Batman can change any of that.
So why not let loose in a lightweight paycheck gig like Runner Runner, the glossy new online gambling film from The Lincoln Lawyer director Brad Furman. Taking the Gordon Gekko template and upping the icy though charming malevolence to nearly Nic Cage-ian degrees, Affleck hams it up as the antagonist, Ivan Block, the owner of a highly lucrative Internet poker site called Midnight Black. Block's a frat boy gone really good, the big-man-on-campus type who's now pulling all the beautiful women and walking around with amplified swagger with multi millions in his bank accounts, and he's not about to let some hotshot Princeton University student like Richie Furst (played by Justin Timberlake) accuse his site of cheating, although that's exactly what happens.
After losing his entire savings to Block's faulty website, Richie, with no fucks given and brass balls filling his jockstrap, flies to Costa Rica and calls Block out in front of his supermodel colleagues. Rather than have Furst's ass whooped, though, Block sees potential in the kid and offers him a job. Which, since Runner Runner lazily adheres to every cliche in the "lavish life thriller" handbook, means that it doesn't take long for the F.B.I., represented by one particularly aggressive agent (Anthony Mackie), to snatch Furst up and force him to cooperate in their efforts to bring Block down.
As conceived by screenwriters Brian Koppelman and David Levien (who previously wrote the similar but much better Rounders, as well as Ocean's Thirteen), Runner Runner is contentedly mediocre, right down to its anticlimactic and abrupt ending. It's Wall Street, 21, and every other movie of that type rolled into one reasonably entertaining but ultimately hollow and predictable package of Hollywood fluff. Just because movies of this type demand obvious, sexy temptresses, there's the prerequisite love interest, played by the usually on-point Gemma Arterton, a solid actress who deserves better than to play this film's one-note eye candy, named Rebecca. Her character's sole purpose is to unbelievably backstab her kinda/sorta lover, Block, in order to prove her genuine affections to the new guy, Richie, even though she and Richie have barely spent 10 minutes together on screen before their plotting behind closed doors.
If not for Affleck, Runner Runner would be a complete washout. The plot's overused conventions aside, Timberlake, once again (remember In Time at your own risk), proves that he's not built for the leading man life outside of playful rom-coms like Friends with Benefits. Cursed with a slightly-older-than-baby face and a voice that's borderline prepubescent, he's the wrong actor to portray characters caught up in the criminal lifestyle—whenever he's asked to shout in anger or come across as tough, Timberlake sounds like the loudest kid in the playground. Affleck, on the other hand, goes to town as the loud, arrogant, casual threat machine Block—his outbursts are commanding, jolting, and, most importantly, convincing. There's little mystery as to who'd win in a fight between he and Timberlake.
And therein lies Runner Runner's appeal for Affleck, or at least one can presume as much. Typically cast as the likable protagonist, Affleck's given the chance to go total baddie here, in a role that's written larger-than-life and played with enough boisterous gusto that Runner Runner loses steam whenever he's not in the camera's frame. There's not a single frame featuring Affleck in which he's not clearly having a blast, too, chomping through scenery as the best caliber of easily likable asshole. In his wildest scene, Block and his goons dump gooey chicken fat over the bodies of two tied-up rivals, giving Block the opportunity to feed some hungry crocodiles by kicking the poor bastards into a swamp. There's no sympathy on Block's face; there's only the visible joy that comes from breaking laws without ever suffering any substantial consequences. Or, for Affleck, the guilty pleasures associated with getting paid absurd amounts of money to be a poor man's Bond villain.
Does Affleck deserve to slum it in a pretty-looking but shallow and generic time-waster like Runner Runner? Sure, what the hell. It's not as if he'll be back in Gigli waters if Runner Runner bricks this weekend—he's currently working on the big-deal literary adaptation Gone Girl with esteemed director David Fincher, after which he'll become the most divisive Bruce Wayne since his good pal George Clooney in the surefire box office juggernaut Superman vs. Batman. Dude's sitting pretty these days. But, come on, Benny—you couldn't find a brains-off project better than Runner Runner? You must have sad the half-assed script and said to yourself, "This is the kind of material I used to begrudgingly accept back in the early 2000s—I'm too good for this shit now." Right?
Damn, it's like that? Why so negative? You've managed to work with credible filmmakers as of late: Terrence Malick; David Fincher; John Wells, the former E.R. and The West Wing producer who chose you to lead his critically praised 2010 feature film debut, The Company Men; hell, even beloved comedy underdog Mike Judge in the 2009 romp Extracted. As perfunctory as Hollywood movies come, Runner Runner is a definite step backward for you, an ill-advised misfire that won't even do much financial damage in theaters this weekend thanks to your boy Clooney's astonishing space movie Gravity, projected to make almost three times what your flick is forecasted to earn. Won't that sting a bit?
Calm down. Sorry for calling you a "bitch." Just trying to look out for you here. Your performance in Runner Runner strongly exemplifies how fine of an actor you are—even in the lamest of disposable major studio cinema, you're able to elevate nothing in a hint of something. Plus, Runner Runner's imminent failure will do more harm for Justin Timberlake's Hollywood stock than yours, of course. Unless he's adding lively support in films like Alpha Dog, The Social Network, or the Coen brothers' upcoming Inside Llewyn Davis, JT's movie worth isn't even an infinitesimal fraction of his music industry clout. The 20/20 Experience: 2 of 2 will certainly top the Billboard charts once the Soundscan figures come in next week; Runner Runner will be lucky to debut at No. 2 behind Gravity or Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2. His big-screen bankability and headliner chops aren't fucking with those radio-killing singles "TKO" or "Take Back the Night."
You, though…you're golden. Sure, you'll have to endure a mid-level barrage of disses and chastisement spurring from the chilly reception Runner Runner's felt from critics. That brutal 10% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes is your third-lowest of all time, hardly ranking better than Gigli (6%) and Surviving Christmas (7%). It's also inspired some humorous shots from unimpressed reviewers. Like One Guy's Opinion writer Frank Swietek, responsible for the line, "A piece of lurid pulp…[whose] similarity to 21 is so striking that it should really be titled Rerunner Rerunner." Or Washington Post critic Ann Hornaday, who put it more bluntly: "Runner Runner is a bummer. Bummer."
That can't feel good.
Well, you're probably better off staying away from the Internet for the next couple of weeks, until Runner Runner is little more than an unfortunate blip on your resume.
You still there?
Damn, Runner Runner isn't that bad. Hey, at least you got to cozy up to the ridiculously beautiful Gemma Arterton—that's certainly something to feel good about. It's kind of like how all of those Gigli and Jersey Girl crucifiers couldn't rid you of the J. Lo bragging rights, no?
Touche. Get Zack Snyder to cast Kate Upton as Bruce Wayne's girlfriend and you'll never have to worry about the haters again.
Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)