For a while there, it seemed as if we’d lost Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson to family movies (“The Game Plan”, “Race to Witch Mountain”, “Tooth Fairy”), comedies (“Get Smart”, “The Other Guys”) and the occasional drama (“Gridiron Gang”). But lo and behold, we finally find the big guy back in badass mode in an action thriller that, while flawed, still manages to remind us that, if he really wanted to, he could still become the next Schwarzenegger or something.
“Faster” is a mostly straightforward revenge story, that of a man known to us only as Driver, played by Johnson as a hulking, raging bull of a man with an impressive singularity of focus. As one of his foes says at one point, he’s obvious but pure, showing no fear or hesitation… And he’s fast! As soon as he’s released from prison after a 10-year sentence for a bank robbery during which he was the getaway driver, he gets his hands on the gun and the muscle car a partner has stashed for him and begins a roaring rampage of revenge, à la The Bride in “Kill Bill”. Over a 5-day period, he’ll track down and murder the men who ambushed his crew after the bank robbery, leaving all dead, including his beloved brother and himself. Yep, Driver is so tough that even after being shot in the back of the head and being declared D.O.A., he got back on his feet, so determined was he to get some payback from the motherfuckers who crossed him!
We might have expected a simple-minded but fun action flick based on this premise but, for better or worse, screenwriters Joe and Tony Gayton chose to make a more somber, sad, introspective film, in which broken men lead lives of violence at the risk of losing their souls and entering a hell of their own making. Beside Driver, the other men in question are the strung-out Cop (Billy Bob Thornton) and the Eurotrash yuppie scum Killer (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). All three are introduced with freeze frames with their respective one-word moniker printed on screen, and the movie builds towards an inevitable Mexican standoff, reminding us of course of “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”, an impression reinforced when that film’s Ennio Morricone score actually turns up as the ring-tone of one of the characters!
So there’s a bit of a Western thing going on in “Faster”, which otherwise seems mostly influenced by gritty 1960-70s revenge films like “Point Blank” or “Rolling Thunder”, with shades of John Woo’s Hong Kong classics as well. Director George Tillman Jr.‘s filmography is a bit all over the place (“Soul Food”, “Men of Honor”, “Notorious”), but he proves to be a good fit here, keeping things moving fast and faster when they need to, but also allowing for quieter moments of doubt and brooding for our (anti)heroes and villains. I liked the film’s grainy cinematography, nervous editing and moody Clint Mansell score, and even though Tillman Jr. indulges in flashy visuals at times (I bet he’s a fan of Tony Scott’s “Man on Fire), “Faster” feels surprisingly grounded in general.
Now, as I said, this is not a flawless movie: the story doesn’t avoid clichés, some of the dialogue is clunky, the characters are stereotypical (the Cop is two weeks away from retirement, the Killer is doing one last job, etc.)… Speaking of the Killer, I could have also done without his storyline entirely. I kinda get what the Gayton brothers aspired to with his character, but in part because of Oliver Jackson-Cohen’s dull performance (same goes for Maggie Grace as his girlfriend), all his scenes seem superfluous. Much more interesting is everything to do with the always reliable Billy Bob Thornton’s Cop, and then there’s The Rock, who appears to be playing a monolithic angel of death at first, but who shows more nuances as events unfold. Hopefully, he’ll keep taking on badass roles like this in the future and, even better, he’ll team up with a truly great action director at some point, like Schwarzenegger when he got involved with James Cameron. But for now, “Faster” remains a step in the right direction, i.e. far away from “Tooth Fairy”-style nonsense!