Like many thrillers, “Runner Runner” is inspired by a real, horrible trend. Actually, make that two. For starters, there’s the craze for excessively shady online poker, which bankrupts many while lining the pockets of those who run it. Arguably even worse is our naive hero’s other problem: He’s in grad school. Richie (Justin Timberlake) is, thanks to a bureaucratic oversight, ineligible for financial aid, meaning he must pay his terrible Princeton tuition up front.
Like many who need fast cash, he turns to the Internet and gets quite obviously cheated out of his cash by hackers. Having already gotten involved in gambling, he decides to double down on stupidity by going down to Costa Rica and confronting the shady man, Ivan (Ben Affleck), who runs it in person. Not only is he not shot or tortured, he’s made Ivan’s right-hand man.
That there’s some bigger setup at work is never in doubt, and it’s almost endearing how “Runner Runner” proceeds to do little but wait for our thick lead to figure that out. Writers Brian Koppelman and David Levien (who wrote “Rounders” and wrote and directed the insightful “Solitary Man”) try to make this an old school film noir; a version of this — a better one, preferably — would have featured Glenn Ford, Dan Duryea and Gloria Grahame as the conflicted maybe-fatale played here by a fairly sprightly Gemma Arterton.
That doesn’t make “Runner Runner” any less thin. Affleck works some shadings into his character; there are times when Ivan almost appears to be on the level with Richie, even if these are just part of his ploy. And Anthony Mackie, as a slimy FBI agent trying to get Richie to turn rat, tears into his role, scaring this kid with lines like “I love f—ing over Princeton guys — ‘cause I went to Rutgers.”
But Timberlake, a fine actor who’s best when using his natural confidence, is a wan fall guy, and the film winds up as plain and dull as his character. Koppelman and Levien wrote the script that became “Ocean’s Thirteen,” and when Richie belatedly catches on and hatches his own scheme, there’s a thrill it might be playful and elaborate. It’s not. "Runner Runner" spends most of its time not trying — why start at the end?