In 2011, director Brad Furman took an interesting look at attorneys working the bottom of the legal barrel in "The Lincoln Lawyer." He alternated between serious and amusing scenes that kept the story rolling. But by the end of the movie, the plot became too far-fetched and the movie lost its promising appeal.

The same thing happens in "Runner Runner," Furman's new movie focused on the world of Internet gambling. Justin Timberlake plays Richie Furst, a sharp student working his way through Princeton by gambling online. When his math skills tell Richie he has been cheated by the website, he sets out to confront the owner.

Ben Affleck is Ivan Block, the sleazy entrepreneur who runs the site. Living in Costa Rica, he uses thugs, bribery and all means necessary to keep his business going. Confronted by the cheated student, Ivan apologizes and offers him a big payday to join the management team of the operation.

This intriguing premise works well for the first half of the film. But as Affleck's character becomes a sadistic psychopath, all the subtle interplay vanishes. Richie's choices are obvious. The predictable morality tale that results takes all the sizzle out of a promising start.

*

With "Captain Phillips," director Paul Greengrass gives us another film of real-life urgency, as he did so well in the 2006 re-creation of the ill-fated "United 93" flight.

He guides an excellent cast of mostly unknowns and a crackling script to an unbearably high tension level.

Based on the book by Richard Phillips, the captain (Tom Hanks) is tasked with sailing huge, unarmed cargo ships around the Horn of Africa to Kenya. It is a route notorious for pirates, none of whom resemble Johnny Depp.

While on such a trip in 1999, two small boats bearing armed men are spotted heading straight for the Maersk Alabama. Eventually, the ship is hijacked and the small crew put at grave risk, and the incident becomes world news.

This small band of Somalis is lead by Muse (excellent Barkhad Abdi in a raw, haunting performance), who assures the captain he is "just a businessman." Indeed, we're given a glimpse of that alternate universe to better understand these men and a hint at how capitalism has helped keep Somalia a Third World country.

Crisply edited, the action takes us from the gigantic ship to a claustrophobic, enclosed lifeboat.

This is good, no-nonsense storytelling. The real perils for the crew, the captain, the U.S. Navy and even the pirates are beyond anything Sandra Bullock had to endure in "Gravity." No grand music or monologues here. This is a sweaty life-or-death madness.

The big showdown and Hanks' shattering performance rattled my soul. I believe this to be the most compelling yet of his career.

JOHN DEPKO is a retired senior investigator for the Orange County public defender's office. He lives in Costa Mesa and works as a licensed private investigator. SUSANNE PEREZ lives in Costa Mesa and is an executive assistant for a company in Irvine.