The recent release of the new Ben Affleck / Justin Timberlake film Runner, Runner, with a storyline based upon the crooked escapades of a fictional Costa Rica-based online poker site, has been met with underwhelming reviews and tepid box-office receipts to date.
While a turnaround is possible, the early returns provide solid indication that the film is, in poker terms, yet another busted flush draw. Though this isn’t technically a “poker” movie — online poker instead just provides a fictional framework for the interpersonal drama played out within — it’s yet another in a string of mediocre cinematic efforts that’ll be reminded by the mainstream as a blah poker effort.’
However, Runner, Runner is making some news in other ways. Whether the movie is pap or not, Runner, Runner and its underlying theme of online gambling have become a political football of sorts, increasing the static level on the current gambling debate.
That’s the real story, but first a sampling of the reviews… and they’re not kind:
The New York Post called the film the second coming of “Badfleck,” a reference to Affleck’s virtually unbroken string of bad movies earlier in his career, suggesting that he’d returned here to his crappy-movie ways. The NYP gave the film a mighty star-and-a-half rating;
CBS Local calls the film a “halfhearted cautionary tale,” a “stylish but skin-deep and suspense-less cautionary thriller. Two stars;
Over at Us Magazine, razzes are handed out to co-star Justin Timberlake, who “flails” in his role as Richie Furst, the online player who’s swindled by the site (Midnight Black) owned by Affleck, and who travels to Costa Rica in attempt to retrieve the stolen funds. And while we’re on the topic, “Richie Furst” is about as lame a a character name as one could imagine. Us calls the film a “witless, predictable cliché.” Two more lukewarm stars;
Newsday rips the film for being a mélange of concepts and characters swiped whole from better and more successful films (Wall Street, The Social Network), advising possible filmgoers, “Don’t bet on these gamblers;”
“… a vacant excursion with plot holes the size of a small Caribbean island,” quips USA Today, which isn’t a bad place to start if you’re curious enough to view the film’s lame, overwrought trailer.
It’s hard to find a good review amid all the raspberries, meaning that Runner, Runner is likely to slip quickly into the 99-cent rental bin, where previous “poker” films such as Lucky You and The Grand have lurked.
Despite all that, and ignoring the widespread view that the film sucks, there’s still more going on. Both pro- and anti-gambling forces have seized upon the release of Runner, Runner as a flashpoint for arguing the topic of internet gambling itself.
The American Gaming Association (AGA), the largest lobbying entity on behalf of US land-based casinos, months ago declared that they would use the release of Runner, Runner in a two-fold manner: to scare potential patrons about the potential dangers of offline gambling, and to suggest that the AGA-fronted casinos themselves will protect consumers and “make sure that the drama of “Runner Runner” stays in the movies.”
Per that plan, the AGA launched a frankly cheesy site this week at onlinevillains.org, which contains a brief video that must have taken an AGA intern upwards of 45 minutes to produce, complete with its scare language of “Sometimes movie villains are real….”
The site includes links to another page at the americangamingassociation.org home domain, which shows the same 31-second video, along with a few brief paragraphs of text titled “Runner Runner – A Cautionary Tale for Americans,” followed by four paragraphs of borderline scare tactics targeted at potential online players, as in the following:
The movie “Runner Runner” depicts a lawless offshore online poker world ruled by shady and unethical characters. Sadly, for millions of Americans who simply want a safe online environment in which to enjoy one of America’s favorite pastimes, this fictional tale is not far from reality.
The co-opting of Runner, Runner by the AGA is even more blatant, via a link on the “villains” page above, which simply says “Runner Runner” (upper left). One might expect that link to go to movie’s home site or at least to a YouTube link for the trailer, but no; instead, the link goes to the AGA’s own page, where yet another iteration of the same 31-second scare flick lurks. (Don’t be fooled by the still image of movie outtakes. The video isn’t that.)
The AGA’s tactics here are suspect enough to have elicited a protest from at least one general anti-gambling group, Stop Predatory Gambling. SPG wrote an open letter calling upon the AGA to remove its “dishonest” marketing campaign. This paragraph is typical:
Your campaign willfully misrepresents the film as “a cautionary tale” of what can happen when “illegal operators are allowed to dominate the market.” Yet the writers and producers of the film have said publicly they have no hidden agenda on the issue of online gambling nor any other form of gambling and they are “amused” by your efforts to hijack the story of the film for the financial benefit of your lobbying group.
While later parts of the SPG protest veer off into imagined societal-doom scenarios, they’re probably on the mark regarding Runner, Runner; it’s a cheap attempt by the AGA to demonize the competition. Not all offshore companies and sites are dishonest. Instead, this is an attempt in wall-building, which is the AGA’s real goal.
The AGA is correct in one way, when they write, “Internet gambling is here.” It’s the motive that’s suspect, since there’s no doubt they want the entire American pie for themselves.
Right or wrong, this political sniping is well removed from what Runner, Runner really is, a star vehicle of little consequence and even less story.
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