When it comes to an actor’s long-awaited return to R-rated territory, there’s nothing quite like a rumblingly terrific start, which is how Faster begins; and, might I add, it does so in the most promising manner that a Dwayne Johnson movie could ever hope to launch itself — with Johnson shirtless, sweating, and with eyes full of furor and passion. His character, Driver, is already in motion and about to be released from a ten-year prison stint. Once the guards release him from the premises, Driver literally takes off running and doesn’t stop until two of his enemies are dead. One immediately gets the impression that this will be a rip-roaring rampage of revenge. What follows is, indeed, very pulpy and noirish in manner of Point Blank; but the movie’s also quite inconsistent in its approach to this revenge tale, which refuses to decide whether to treat its main characters as mere archetypes or shoehorn in some added dimensions just to make the movie seem fuller, somehow, and more chaotic than it really is. The movie simultaneously takes both approaches, and the unfortunate result is that Faster’s initially wonderful sense of momentum grinds into a state of inertia.
As a matter of course, Faster’s been marketed as a Dwayne Johnson vehicle, and it would likely have been successful in that lofty goal if Driver had remained the main focus of the film. After we meet Driver, freeze frames also introduce us to the other two main characters, who just happen to be chasing Driver throughout the entire film. One of them is a detective, Cop (Billy Bob Thornton), who’s managed to last all the way until two weeks before retirement despite a bit of a heroin habit. Despite the fact that Cop’s working the “one last job” cliché pretty damn hard, he also makes several pit stops to try and mend fences with his estranged wife and kid. Then, the filmmakers waste an unreasonable amount of time by intimately acquainting the audience with a third wheel. We first meet Killer (Oliver Jackson-Cohen, so pretty that it hurts) — a former billionaire software ingenue who got bored, so he became an assassin-for-hire — while he’s executing a masterful sequence of ashtanga yoga poses that, supposedly, only ten people in the world can do. It turns out that Killer’s a former crippled child turned model of physical perfection and an adrenaline junkie who’s yet to meet his match; he subsequently finds himself rather humbled by his first encounter with Driver. Killer finds himself in awe of Driver’s pureness as evidenced by “No fear, no hesitation.” From that moment forward, Killer’s only real purpose (other than namedropping the movie’s title) is to make sure his handsome face shows up for the requisite Mexican standoff because, between Johnson and Thornton, the three of them (presumably) make a damn fine rendition of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. By the time this happens, the standoff has been well-forecasted by the use of that ubiquitous Ennio Morricone score. And the ripoffs don’t stop there.
Strangely, Faster appropriates its master template from Kill Bill even though, as all of us realize, Quentin Tarantino himself borrows heavily from a wide cinematic catalogue. Tarantino’s movies are generally described as pastiche and, as such, it’s the compilation and particular arrangement of elements that ultimately creates the final product. Calling Tarantino a cinematic thief is akin to labeling a phonebook as plagiarism merely because they’ve assembled a very long list of already-existing names in alphabetical order. However, I imagine that the companies who author phonebooks take great care to leave “markers” that would tip off anyone else who merely wishes to photocopy what they’ve already invested in terms of the collection and assembly of this data. As it happens, several of Tarantino’s tell-tale Kill Bill markers are present in Faster: The protagonist who’s suffered a great personal loss and is back for revenge after a near-death experience and several years out of commission; the band of criminals who’ve gone on to respective different lives, whether it’s going on to start their own families or work as a bouncer in a titty bar; and, most prominently, the use of a death list. At the beginning of the movie, the tactic works though Driver’s stunning efficiency with his tools of the trade — a car, a gun, and that list — which allow him to take out two baddies in rapid succession, but the script then slows down significantly, and the characters begin to make inexplicable mistakes, which means the inevitable retracing of steps. This is a matter of pacing, but it’s quite frustrating to watch a cop and two badass killers suddenly develop spectacularly bad aim just to drag this movie out to feature-length status.
To the credit of director George Tillman Jr., the movie deftly churns out the miming of motion (when the movie begins, Johnson is already pacing in his prison cell) and use of time (captions that inform us of each passing day on Driver’s journey of death; clocks that tick incessantly; detectives who repeated refer to the fact that Driver killed within one hour of leaving prison), both of which lend a sense of urgency to distract us from the fact that the screenplay repeatedly hits the brakes. And while the movie does include a flashback of one screechingly cool car chase with Driver at the wheel, there’s otherwise an amazing absence of action within this so-called action movie. Further and for a revenge story with a whole lot of killing, there’s not much blood to be seen either, which is rather disconcerting for a story that revolves around a supposedly merciless killer bent upon revenge.
Perhaps the most fundamental error that Faster makes is its failure to make better use of Dwayne Johnson and allow his inherent magnetism to carry an otherwise defective vehicle. Even though Driver must have been conceived as a one-dimensional stock character, he diverts from the plan quite a bit. He pulls punches. He grows soft. These omissions could have potentially been a welcome character development if the rest of the story could support the twists and turns, but that’s not the way it works out (due to the aforementioned inertia), and even Johnson’s proven charisma cannot save the picture. He’s never allowed to crack a smile and reel us in, and the snappy dialogue is kept to the barest of minimums. His one-liners aren’t funny or droll. They’re simply words. All of this is a damn shame for what could have been a really fun and forgettable movie if it kept things simple and just delivered the goods. After all, the only real memory that anyone would desire about a Dwayne Johnson action pic is the man himself. Unfortunately, the nagging inconsistencies within the plot are what really stick with the viewer. In short, Dwayne Johnson fans will be delighted to see the actor trash the damn tutu and finally return to action, but just not quite like this.
Agent Bedhead lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She and her little black heart can be found at agentbedhead.com.