On September 27, a new film loosely based on the murky world of online poker hits the multiplexes. Called Runner Runner — poker players will recognize the poker pun immediately – it stars singer-turned-Hollywood A-Lister Justin Timberlake in the central role, with heavyweight support from ‘the next Batman’, Ben Affleck, and British hottie, Gemma Arterton.
Timberlake plays Richie Furst, a Princeton student paying his way through college by killing online poker games in his dorm room (presumably he managed to get his money off Full Tilt before Black Friday hit). When Richie loses his tuition money after a bad session he feels convinced he’s been cheated out of his roll by the poker site, and rather than doing what most real-life players do and bitch about it on the poker forum for six months, instead decides to head off to the company’s HQ on a remote island to confront the poker room’s boss, Ivan Block (Affleck).
But wait — our corrupt online poker bad guy isn’t real-life portly goatee’d villain, Ray Bitar, he’s a handsome, charismatic jock, so naturally Richie is sucked in by Block’s charm and is soon doing the big man’s dirty work. Meanwhile, an FBI agent hot on Block’s tail tries to get Richie to go undercover and help him put the big boss behind bars.
Can Richie realize the error of his ways and do what any self-respecting guy would do — dump the baddies and the multi-table grinding, and take off with Gemma Arterton?
Runner Runner is directed by Brad Furman (who helmed the decent Matthew McConnaughey film, The Lincoln Lawyer), produced by Leonardo di Caprio, and written by Brian Koppelman and David Levien. Timberlake, Affleck, Di Caprio – what could possibly go wrong?
Koppelman and Levien are no strangers to the world of poker, of course. In 1997 they wrote the seminal poker film, Rounders, in which Matt Damon – Ben Affleck’s real-life BFFÂ – played a law student who, after losing three stacks of ‘High Society’, his girl and his best friend, goes up against John Malkovich and his mad Russian accent over the felt to win it all back.
A cult hit at the time, Rounders had to explain a lot of the nuances of Texas Hold’em to the audience, as many people watching the film had simply never heard of the game before. The film’s success, though, just as with many great gambling films, came in making it possible to enjoy the film without knowing the rules of the game. Who cares what High Society means? It sounds cool.
Rounders pulled off another trick by casting two of the biggest up ‘n’ coming stars of the time in the lead roles — Damon and Edward Norton. Damon had just come off the back of an Oscar for Good Will Hunting and Ed Norton had been busy blowing audiences away (and Richard Gere off the screen) as a choirboy imprisoned for murder in Primal Fear.
After Rounders came out, both stars played in the 1998 WSOP Main Event to help promote the film. That year 350 players played in the $10,000 Main Event, with Scotty Nguyen taking down the $1,000,000 first prize. Fast forward to this year and the Main Event saw 6,352 runners take part. The first prize when the final table reconvenes in November? $8.3 million. No wonder Koppelman and Levien have stuck with their beloved poker theme.
The poker bug obviously bit during the filming of Rounders, as Damon went on to become something of a poker fan himself. Since 1998 both Damon and Affleck have been seen gracing the felt at WSOP charity gigs of one kind or another. In fact, a quick scan of Ben Affleck’s Hendon Mob page shows he has a pretty impressive result to his name – 1st place in the 2004 California State Poker Championship for $356,400.
But it’s not just the WSOP numbers that have dramatically changed since then. Even with Americans post-UIGEA/Black Friday waiting to get back online, Internet poker is still enjoying a boom worldwide. Hell, Senator John McCain was even caught playing online poker on his phone during a recent hearing in Congress. (PLOT SPOILER – it was play money, and he lost.) Even if you don’t play you’ll know all about Texas Hold’em, and this is where Runner Runner will do well — there’s not the same urge to explain the rules to the audience, unless your granny is going along with you to watch it.
Poker fans who’ve been waiting for a long-touted sequel to Rounders, however, will probably be disappointed that Damon’s Mike McDermott, Norton’s Worm, and Malkovich’s Teddy KGB haven’t been brought back to life, although Runner Runner — a sequel to Rounders of some sorts — does at least try to tap into the current craze.
Runner Runner will also do little to assuage poker know-nothings about the game’s reputation. It’s probably no accident that Affleck’s poker boss lives on a ‘remote island location’. Any similarity to Costa Rica – home to many of the world’s poker rooms and some if the industry’s biggest controversies — is presumably entirely coincidental.
In fact, the film’s trailer throws in a ‘Based on Real Events’ tagline, and it’s hard not to think that Koppelman and Levien had the UltimateBet/Absolute super-user scandal in mind when they wrote the script. From that infamous real-life scandal — when players lost millions to a company CEO spying on their hole cards — to the revelations years later of Full Tilt’s $300 million embezzlement of its players’ money, Hollywood scriptwriters just needed to open any number of poker news sites to find an angle. It’s ironic that in the year Runner Runner is released, many Americans are STILL waiting to get their hands on their online rolls, especially if they played on Full Tilt.
Non-poker players will probably be drawn more to the cast and crime plot of Runner Runner than the poker angle itself. For poker players, meanwhile, they’ll probably be annoyed that the poker community is once again being portrayed on-screen as being full of crooks.
So who comes out of this film well? Affleck’s star is on the rise again. Following years of bad film choices and some even worse performances, he turned to directing, receiving widespread praise for The Town before he bagged a producer’s gong when Argo won Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards. Affleck was snubbed entirely in the Best Director category – which probably tells you a lot about the respect he holds among the movie community – and when it was announced that he would be the next actor to don the cowl and cape in the upcoming Batman and Superman film, there was an audible sound of film buffs performing the mother of all face-palms.
Affleck has played bad guys before — State of Play was a reasonably successful attempt at a crooked politician, and his sensitive turn as a conflicted robber in The Town was his best performance to date — but here it’s all-out slimebag. It remains to be seen if we accept the golden boy as an all-out villain.
If Levien and Koppelman do anything well, it’s making you care about their lead characters, so we hope Timberlake’s Richie turns out to be empathetic. That’s why gambling films should always work; the best ones have their heroes likeable and recognizable, but with a fatal flaw — they can’t stop gambling. Whether it’s Steve McQueen’s Cincinnati Kid, who rises so high and falls so fast, or Matt Damon’s everyman, trying to do the best thing for his friends, we need to care.
Will we care about Timberlake? Can we be bought in by a Princeton student who looks a little too like a multi-millionaire pop star in disguise? And will we like him when he’s off spending his millions like a baller online phenom, or be turned off when he’s grinding away on the micro-stakes tables after blowing the lot? If poker in real life tells us anything, it’s that fortunes can be won and lost faster than any movie can accurately portray — and the sad fact is, we rarely give a damn.
We’ll see how Runner Runner does at the box office. What is certain is that Hollywood has been slow to get in on the current boom. Aside from a few well-made documentaries like Ryan Firpo’s excellent ‘BOOM’ about the rise and rise of Internet poker, nothing dramatic has come along to rival Rounders in the past 15 years.
Liv Boeree is one of the worlds’ top young pros. Despite the general paucity of poker movie offerings over the years, she thinks Hollywood still has a way to go in making poker acceptable.
“Generally the poker shown on screen is exaggerated and/or grossly inaccurate, although Rounders probably came closest to doing it well,” she says.
“It’s great that more major movies now often include a poker scene or two, even if they’re not poker films per se, and to be honest I think poker is a viable topic for a mainstream audience. What would obviously benefit our industry the most is showing poker players in a glamorous and positive light, not just as shady characters.”
But then, movie makers don’t really ‘get’ poker. Unless it’s about gangsters (Run, Rounders), flawed heroes (Rounders, The Cincinnati Kid), old-school hustlers (The Sting, Maverick, The Cincinnati Kid, Lock Stock & Two Smoking Barrels) or cheating (all of the above) they’re not interested. So it’s interesting that Runner Runner even got the green light. In fact, it’s hard to imagine this film being made had Affleck and Timberlake not been on board; perhaps those stories of a Rounders sequel being stuck in Development Hell for years are true after all.
But then, Hollywood doesn’t really get the Internet, either. Unless it’s being used to swindle (AntiTrust, The Net), shut down the country’s power grid (Die Hard 4.0), or imprison the world’s population in a virtual Hell (The Matrix), it’s hard for a Hollywood exec to get wet about poker players enjoying themselves unless they’re reaping utter destruction. (On a side note, when was the last time you saw anyone in a film about computers use a mouse?Â When the Internet is being used for world domination, it’s not done by scrolling a Logitech across the desk, but rather utilizing a rather more cumbersome method of smashing away on a keyboard like a monkey on coke.)
Having said all that, 2012’s The Social Network, which explored the origins of Facebook and established Timberlake as the Hollywood hunk geeks could relate to, was an intelligent film that made the web sexy AND scooped lots of awards and cash at the box office. Let’s hope the masses learn a little more about online poker in the same way, and who knows, makes them go and open a new account on an online site — as long as they recognize that not everyone in the industry is a murdering, money-stealing scumbag.
Making a good film about poker is tough; making a good film about online poker is really tough. But someone out there in La-La Land obviously thinks ‘online’ is hot right now. Ultimately, it’s pretty hard to make a movie where you can care about something cold and invisible that you can’t really engage with on an emotional level – but I guess that never stopped Ben Affleck getting any parts.
Runner Runner is released September 27.