Runner Runner is a familiar ‘deal with the devil’ tale that draws the hero into a business he never thought he’d be part of. But unlike its predecessors, in this film the devil has lost a lot of his menace.
Starring Ben Affleck and Justin Timberlake, Runner Runner tells the story of a young Princeton student who turns to online gambling to try and fund his education. Timberlake’s Richie Furst was formerly a stockbroker who got burned by the Global Financial Crisis and is trying to rebuild his future with an Ivy League education. However when one of the world’s biggest online gambling sites cheats him out of his savings he decides to pay the owner a visit in Costa Rica. Enter Affleck as Ivan Block and the film’s incarnation of the devil. He is apparently impressed by Furst’s pluck and offers him a place as his protégé. Over the coming months Richie earns fabulous amounts of money and gets a taste for the self-indulgent life Block leads. But an unwelcome visit from the FBI tips the young broker off that the online business he’s involved in is not as legitimate as he thinks. Before long Furst is being drawn into a shady world of money laundering, murder and government payoffs. Can he get out before Block closes the door?
Runner Runner has all the elements for a good thriller, but is sadly let down in several key departments. Ben Affleck struggles to deliver the menace required of a good villain and the premise for Richie’s change of luck seems too stupid to be true – lo and behold it is! – but our hero never picks up on his peril. There’s also a fairly unfortunate attitude towards the dangers of gambling, even though Richie’s father is clearly addicted. The best casinos are presented as empowering a person to change their life. Recounting the story of a famous casino owner, Richie tells his friends that he would never have allowed a bent table in one of his establishments because it was bad for business:
Richie: “He understood what gambling is all about.”
Friend: “And what is gambling all about?”
Richie: “Everyone gets a fair shake.”
Really? I thought gambling was about the House giving enough of an impression of ‘a fair shake’ that gamblers hand over their money while still believing they have every chance of making it back. The sad reality is, whether it’s a government lottery or plush poker pit, gambling is a business model that profiteers off greed and stupidity. But Runner Runner actually has worse in store…
As I mentioned, the plotline is hardly new. Desperate men have been doing deals with the devil since Faust first knocked on Mephistopheles’ door in the 16th century. In fact picking ‘Furst’ as the hero’s last name is probably a nod to that seminal tale. The best-known adaptation in recent decades is certainly Oliver Stone’s Wall Street where the young Bud Fox craves Gordon Gecko’s success, only to discover his nearest and dearest will be the main course. However the difference between Runner Runner and Stone’s classic is a significant lack of integrity.
Runner Runner pitches itself as a cautionary tale from its opening scene. The Dean of Princeton warns Richie off gambling by saying, “What we touch, touches us.” And it’s not long before Furst realizes that Block has been manipulating his weaknesses:
“That’s what Ivan does to you. He figures out what you want – and then he gives it to you.”
In fact the actual devil tried the same tactic with Jesus, offering him kingship over all the world – his actual destiny – if he’d simply bow down to him. In Wall Street Bud Fox is able to repudiate his decision to bow down to Gecko, but only at the cost of a stretch in prison. Not so Richie. He manages to make good on his failings, entrap Block, side-step the FBI and escape with the girl, a private jet and bank accounts bursting with money – oh, and having learnt a valuable lesson. But does he really learn anything? In fact Runner Runner actually does the devil’s work for him, suggesting that the smart will always be able to find a way to have their cake and eat it to, so go ahead and eat now. Jesus’ approach to temptation is a far more realistic and effective way of preserving our future:
Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’”
Release Date: September 26