As Faster begins, we’re immediately introduced to Dwayne Johnson, although he looks an awful lot like his former wrestling self, The Rock. Pacing in a jail cell and hulking with muscle, Johnson looks like a caged beast. He’s into the warden’s office for a final meeting, and his first line of the movie is a sardonic “Where’s the exit?” Upon leaving prison, he wastes no time, immediately breaking into a run.
It’s easy to read this scene as Johnson getting free, too, from the lucrative kid-movie mill and back to the action-heroics of his earlier career. The shots of Johnson running down the empty road hold promise of a physical specimen even less stoppable than a Tony Scott-piloted runaway train, but the movie screeches to a halt when he reaches a dusty lot and ducks into a waiting muscle car with a gun in the glove box. In an instant, the revenge business becomes less interesting: why cast the Rock and fetishize the hardware?
Delaying the inevitable, the film cuts between Johnson, seeking revenge for the murder of his brother, and story threads involving a burnt-out junkie cop near retirement (Billy Bob Thornton) and a glamorous hit man (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). Captions refer to them as “Driver,” “Cop,” and “Killer” in place of proper names, a pointless exercise in faux-simplicity for a movie only interested in the archetypiest of archetypes. Cop, as played by Thornton in sad sack mode, fares the best; his scenes with his estranged lover Marina (Moon Bloodgood) and especially their little son Tommy (Aedin Mincks) have a weary honesty amidst all of the clichés.
Cop and Killer both stick to Driver’s tail, requiring remarkably time-consuming police work and technology to track a guy who shoots hand cannons and squeals tires in every major location he visits. All three trackers are positioned on their last jobs—last burst of vengeance, last case, last thrill-seeking hit—combining to form a single mega-cliché as well as an empty, perpetual promise that the movie is almost over.
Through all the winding plot connections, the film’s use of Johnson remains a constant puzzle. It casts him as a brooding, gun-toting antihero who only throws a handful of punches. Other characters comment on his imposing physique, but the movie all but ignores it in favor of posturing distractions: fast driving and slow-motion gunplay. Despite the charismatic physicality that he brought to better B-movies like The Rundown (2003) and Walking Tall (2004), scene after scene in Faster consists of shooting, staring or staring while deciding whether or not to shoot. The action has no conflict, no sense of danger. It’s obligatory in the worst way.
To his credit, director George Tillman, Jr., doesn’t smash-cut this limited action to pieces; he prefers skewed angles and stylized sunburnt lighting. Faster is less an action movie than a gritty meditation on the price of revenge, the difficulty of forgiveness, and so forth. Unfortunately, the screenplay’s critique of revenge has no more weight than any other hypocritical genre picture that wallows in sudden violence, reconsiders the motivations behind said violence, and then goes ahead and wallows some more, following some Biblical references.
If the movie imagines itself as a successor to low-down revenge movies of the ‘70s, it plays more like a third-generation copy of Quentin Tarantino’s references to same. At the same time, the R-rated Faster is weirdly skittish about sex and language, and even includes a bad guy uttering the immortal PG kiss-off, “Screw you.” Dwayne Johnson’s Driver, like Uma Thurman’s similarly no-named Bride, looks good in a pre-violence pose. Unlike the Bride—or, for that matter, The Rock—looking good is just about all Faster does.