On April 25th, 2011, the DOJ went into action prosecuting United States vs. Scheinberg, and the poker world was plunged into utter disarray. Two years after the so called ‘Black Friday’, Brian Koppelman and David Levien, the writers behind Rounders, watched as their take on the Full Tilt scandal – Runner, Runner – entirely failed to make a decent go of it.
With some of the pros who were involved with Full Tilt finally beginning to show their faces at the WSOP, now seems like a good time to look at the way that story played out in the fictional realm. The general consensus is ‘not well’.
With a Metacritic score of 32 (out of 100) and a rating of 8% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, it is safe to say that it was not a resounding critical success. If the rule of thumb is that a film must make twice its budget at the box office to break even for the producers then it just about washed its face in the theaters. When you watch it, it’s both obvious why it did so badly, and also a little baffling.
The team behind it is pretty solid. Koppelman and Levien have a mixed scorecard as a writing team, but poker is their home ground – their lesser known TV show Tilt for ESPN was an entertaining enough fantasy about cheats in Vegas, and Rounders is, well, Rounders. They also wrote Runaway Jury which is a solid legal thriller. So a poker inflected thriller sounds so good, so far.
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The setup for Runner, Runner is pretty solid too: graduate student, online poker pro, and gambling website affiliate, Richie Furst (played by Justin Timberlake), gets cheated online, and in trying to rectify the theft ends up working with Ivan Block, a crooked owner of the site Furst was beaten on. Block is played by Ben Affleck despite the fact that the name does suggest that a reprise of John Malkovich’s magnificent Teddy KGB accent might have been intended.
The story then follows the typical line for this genre of film. The money rolls in for JT’s character and everything looks good until suddenly it doesn’t. The cops show up and want his co-operation, Ben Affleck – who is channeling his best panto villain persona right out of Dogma – turns out to be less nice than his crimes originally suggested. Loyalties are tested, and JT finds himself in a tricky situation.
Gemma Arterton also shows up in an underwritten romantic role; seeming to instantly fall for JT, whose attempts at charm come across as weirdly creepy.
There are also some crocodiles involved.
Worse Than It Should Be, Not As Bad As It Seemed
From that set-up, script, and cast, the director, Brad Furman (best known for the fairly solid Lincoln Lawyer), ends up weaving a film that feels completely without soul. The parts do all seem to work solidly from scene to scene, even if there is nothing particularly new in them.
The dialogue is alright, the performances passable, the camera is where it needs to be to tell the story, and that story is a good one. I know it’s a good one, because I’ve seen it so many times before.
All this makes for a film that is decidedly less than the sum of its parts. In fact, ‘bland’, would be my overall description of my watching experience. Not even bad enough to be interestingly bad.
A Few Pet Peeves
Take for example the opening: we get 1) slew of helicopter shots to establish location, 2) a voice over to set the scene, and 3) further exposition delivered in the form of a montage of news reports. These are three instant warnings. The first is a visual cliche, the second when done badly is a lazy way to tell the story, and the third is both.
Which is not to say they are always, always, ALWAYS wrong, but they are often symptoms of a movie being made without too much thought.
Compare the way the voice over in Rounders is used. The other half of Batt Affmon is used to give us information about the world. In the poker scenes it gives us the thought processes, augmenting the stuff we are seeing. Elsewhere, it is matched to the actions on screen, adding to the performances or expanding on the visual action. In Runner, Runner the voice over is always abstracted, it kicks in when there is nothing much going on or when there is a generic sort of montage happening. As a result, it is working by itself; and a voice in a vacuum, that’s not cinema, that’s radio.
As for the establishing helicopter shots I’ll let Every Frame A Painting make the case regarding that in this video:
I also am the sort of person who finds movies that seem to deliberately set out to fail the Bechdel test to be annoying. Gemma Arterton is the only speaking role for a woman in the film, and her only personality traits seem to be that she used to love the villain and now she fancies the hero. Just not good enough guys.
About That Poker
Runner Runner Poker Club
Free slots 4 you no download. For something steeped in the poker culture, it has very little poker in it, which is not a problem, particularly. It is far more about offshore gambling companies, local politics, and the financial crimes of poker site owners than it is about cards. Despite that, the gambling chat is still pretty solid. In fact, one moment where the film comes back to life for two minutes is when JT’s character decides to deal with a cocky crap shooter by fading his action and taking over the table. As he slips into salesman mode, needling banter, and talking craps talk, you suddenly see why he was cast – something of his performance in The Social Network shows through.
Like Rounders, the script is comprehensible to the poker neophyte without stopping to explain terms, and the slang use is pretty slick, without the usual awkwardness that comes from a writer having picked up his poker lingo from reading an online glossary. It is a great help that Koppelman and Levien know this world from previous projects.
There are still one or two clangers in there. JT’s character knows he was cheated because some fish kept winning against him all night long. In the voice over he tells us that an evening is basically the long run. Someone should explain variance and sample sizes to him.
There are also a few odd references that make you wonder if the line is meant to be world-building or product placement. For example, according to Ben Affleck’s character, the ‘pussies at Ultimate Bet’ are pussies because they don’t cheat, and the FBI guy suggests JT leave Costa Rica and go work for Caesar’s Palace cus he’s heard, ‘that’s a nice place.’
It also calls online poker a ‘dirty little secret’ at a time when it was multi-billion dollar industry.
Runner Runner Poker Llc
The ‘Likeable’ Character Problem
People often complain that they disliked something because the main character, ‘was not likeable.’ I think the complaint puts the wrong words to the feeling. We like to see unlikeable characters, Netflix’s House of Cards’ massive success is proof of that.
The real problem is other way round: likeability can save a boring character. When the character is both unlikeable and uninteresting that is death for the movie. Runner, Runner struggles with this problem: JT’s character is annoying, arrogant, and morally suspect. He creeps on women, and doesn’t have an issue bribing government officials until he gets physically hurt, when suddenly he’s all tears. None of this makes you root for him.
Unfortunately, the plot requires you to be on his side. I ended up hoping pretty much everyone would get caught and go to jail. Including the filmmakers.
When the end arrived, though not particularly clever, I was able to squeeze a little smirk of satisfaction as I finally got catharsis for the $35 dollars or so I lost when Full Tilt sank. It was the bright moment in an otherwise wasted hour and forty.
Let us know what you thought of Runner Runner in the comments.