2013’s Runner Runner might as well have been a straight-to-video flick, as its unspectacular script and subpar direction renders it forgettable and unremarkable, not to mention overly slight with its scant 90-minute runtime. In fact, this is the type of unsophisticated thriller narrative that we would expect to see featuring a washed-up action star, like Wesley Snipes or Steven Seagal. Exactly why it was even given the theatrical treatment is a mystery. Directed by Brad Furman, Runner Runner is hard to care about and even harder to find yourself immersed in, as it never shifts out of first gear. One-note in terms of intensity and suspense, it’s middle-of-the-road from start to end, rapidly devolving into boredom despite its flashy presentation.

A student at Princeton University, Richie Furst (Justin Timberlake) works as a recruiter for online gambling sites, receiving money for enticing students to sign up and drain their bank accounts. Facing impossible tuition bills and forced by the dean to cease his gambling affiliations, Richie decides to bet his entire savings in a game of online poker. He loses all his money, but soon discovers that the site actually cheated him. Low on options, Richie hops on a plane bound for Costa Rica, planning to confront the site’s owner, Ivan Block (Ben Affleck). To Richie’s amazement, Block is receptive to his complaint, reimbursing him for his lost money and offering a great-paying job. Taking the bait, Richie becomes swept up in Block’s lavish, wealthy lifestyle, while also developing feelings for his boss’ advisor/girlfriend Rebecca (Gemma Arterton). Into the mix soon steps F.B.I. Agent Shavers (Anthony Mackie), who reveals Block to be a fraud, and wants the frightened Richie to act as an informant and lure Block back into U.S. jurisdiction.

Scripted by Brian Koppelman and David Levien, it’s hard to tell whether or not Runner Runner‘s issues can be attributed to incompetent writing, as their work might’ve been savaged by the editors under orders to keep the finished product under 90 minutes. There are massive leaps of logic here, including the glaring question mark of how Richie manages to afford a trip to Costa Rica, as well as accommodation, despite having literally zero dollars to his name. The lack of complexity here is truly heartbreaking, too; Runner Runner could’ve been an intelligent examination of the world of online gambling, but it abandons this approach in favour of a trite plot we’ve all seen done better a million times before. This is a superficial and two-dimensional experience; the characters are all cardboard constructs, and they’ve given no room to emerge as actual flesh-and-blood people. And Richie might be the ostensible hero of the film, but he’s not given enough development, and it’s hard to like him as he makes unwise decisions and acts in an unsympathetic manner. He’s not interesting or charming; he’s just greedy.

Runner Runner seems to have been designed to be a popcorn thriller, but the pacing is languid and sluggish, not to mention the film is dangerously low on narrative momentum and, most critically, it lacks a sense of threat. To the credit of Furman and cinematographer Mauro Fiore (Avatar), this is an attractive-looking flick, and the sense of workmanship makes it at least watchable, especially with the beautiful locales and fairly competent production values. But this aside, Runner Runner is just not an overly involving watch. There’s no sense of escalation or build-up to the proceedings – rather, the film segues from one scene to the next, following a drab, uninspired rhythm, until the final scene suddenly comes out of nowhere. Sure, the movie climaxes with a double-cross and with Block being inevitably arrested, but none of this stuff feels as important as it should. Furthermore, Runner Runner is astonishingly low on R-rated firepower. It carries an R rating, yet it plays out like a PG-13 endeavour, low on violence and harsh language. Here was a golden opportunity to craft a memorable R-rated thriller, and Furman completely squandered all potential.

Timberlake is not an inherently bad actor, but he completely founders unless he’s playing a fully-formed character under the direction of a genuine auteur. He was brilliant in The Social Network, but he’s a fairly vanilla presence, making him an uninteresting action hero. The character of Richie is so thankless and personality-free, giving Timberlake nothing to work with. And since he doesn’t have the authoritative on-screen presence of someone like Arnold Schwarzenegger or John Wayne, he’s hopeless here. Equally flat is Arterton who makes no impression, while Mackie is completely interchangeable as the trademark F.B.I. agent. Faring mildly better is Affleck, in a rare villainous role. He took the part and ran with it, turning Block into a Bond villain who even has pet crocodiles. Affleck is clearly bored out of his mind, though, going through the motions for a paycheque and the opportunity to sit back after working so hard behind the camera to salvage his career.

If you were channel-surfing in the early hours of the morning, and nothing interesting was on, then Runner Runner might prove to be a decent enough recliner diversion. Despite how forgettable it is, it’s still somewhat watchable, but that’s still not much of a recommendation – there are far better thrillers out there, and this one is not essential viewing.

4.2/10