Faster: Film Review

A throwback to the ‘70s — straight action with a few clever twists, all anchored by solid characters actors

"Faster" is stripped for action without a moment wasted on unnecessary dialogue, exposition or nuances. It starts the moment Dwayne Johnson’s archetypical character Driver sprints out of prison after 10 years in stir and doesn’t stop until a bullet penetrates the brainpan of the last bad guy. Directed by George Tillman Jr., Faster possesses the white-heat fervor of ‘70s exploitation movies with a refreshing emphasis on actual stunts involving cars, weapons and actors who buffed up in the gym for months. No sissy CGI stuff here. (Okay, it’s minimal.)

This is a guy’s movie, where the female characters are as tough as the men. One woman celebrates her wedding with target practice out in the desert. She hits everything she aims at and doesn’t even bother to take off the wedding dress.

So while some family members may frolic Thanksgiving weekend with young wizards, a fairy-tale princess, a rom-com or a musical, guys will watch football — or take in Faster. This counter-programming might actually work.

Johnson, formerly The Rock, says goodbye to his Disney period to return to the kind of raw action that made his name. He plays a man so single-minded that a simple ‘hello’ would be a distraction.

When Driver races out of prison, he means to gun down one by one the men who killed his brother 10 years ago. That he and his brother had robbed a bank and were relaxing with their loot in what they believed was a safe house along with the rest of the gang is beside the point. In the moral universe of Faster, everyone is wretched and corrupt. Just some are more so.

Driver has something of a conscience. He refuses to pull a trigger when an innocent person gets between him and his target. Anyone not on his to-do list also fails to interest him. Only as time wears on — the film spans five days — he becomes aware that the list is incomplete.

Roaming the California desert from Bakersfield into Nevada and back, he attracts a following. A police detective, the Cop (Billy Bob Thornton), only days from retirement, draws the assignment after the first murder to the disgust of his partner (Carla Gugino). Little wonder: Cop is a junkie.

Then someone hires a professional assassin, the Killer (newcomer Oliver Jackson-Cohen), a Brit who sees hunting humans as a new kind of extreme sport where he might test himself physically and mentally.

Each suspense or action sequence in Joe and Tony Gayton’s screenplay manages to fill a viewer in on motivations and back stories. These are all done with an economy of purpose. Childhood abuse, bad cops, drug addiction, wrong choices, wrong crowds, underachievement and, in one case, overachievement — all these issues feed into the action on screen.

You wouldn’t want to accuse Faster of having a sense of humor but it has enough a sly wit for a killer to be stalking another killer while talking to his therapist on a hands-free mobile. Then the therapist suddenly to ask: “Are you off your meds?”

The movie itself may be off its meds, but for all its mash-up of pulp-fiction types and situations, it never completely forsakes logic. A killing or confrontation may be outrageous but never implausible. Stunts with cars may be wild but never violate the laws of physics.

Tillman and his writers demonstrate that action can reveal character. These are rudimentary characters to be sure, but people who are completely understandable without long dialogue passages. There is one exception in Driver’s confrontation with a reformed villain (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje).

Johnson has never had much range as an actor but here he deliberately narrows it even more. He keeps his responses short and his face nearly blank. He uses his tremendous bulk to intimidate and his eyes to hurl warnings. There’s only one scene where his character is asked to demonstrate sentiment, and he looks like he can’t wait for it to be over.

Thornton does suggest a tragic dimension to his junkie Cop. His back story is thinly sketched but his ruination may have come from a love for a woman (Moon Bloodgood) having as much trouble staying clean as he does.

Like the Cop, Jackson-Cohen’s Killer could star in his own movie. From the bits fed to audiences by wall photos, he seemingly fought off childhood disease with rigid rehab and a triumph over the body that continues in his new twisted profession.

The female characters don’t receive much attention but Gugino as the other cop and Maggie Grace as Killer’s gun-totting bride very ably carry off these roles.

Clint Mansell’s propulsive music and some hard-rock songs egg on the action while Michael Grady’s camera is fluid and agile without calling attention to itself.

Opens: Nov. 24 (CBS Films)
Production companies: CBS Films and TriStar Pictures present a Castle Rock Entertainment/State Street Pictures production
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Billy Bob Thornton, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Carla Gugino, Maggie Grace, Moon Bloodgood, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Tom Berenger, Mike Epps
Director: George Tillman, Jr.
Screenwriter: Tony Gayton, Joe Gayton
Producers: Martin Shafer, Liz Glotzer, Tony Gayton, Robert Teitel
Executive producers: Joe Gayton, Dara Weintraub
Director of photography: Michael Grady
Production designer: David Lazan
Music: Clint Mansell
Costume designer: Salvador Perez
Editor: Dirk Westervelt
Rated R, 96 minutes