[29 November 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
So, you saw Faster this weekend, right? Actually, that’s a bit of a stretch, considering the new action film from former wrestler turned actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson failed to ignite the box office over the traditional Thanksgiving holiday weekend. Indeed, for the muscular star, his return to hard-R territory was an unmitigated disaster, failing to make the Top 5 for the five day accounting (it was 7th) and unable to outpace established titles like Unstoppable and Megamind. Indeed, all of the new releases for 24 November found their niche - from Disney’s delightful Tangled to the tacky and somewhat tacky Cher-tina musical Burlesque. Heck, even Jake Gyllenhaal’s Viagra-tinged adult romance Love and Other Drugs did better.
As with most flops, there are many compelling reasons for why it failed to connect. One of the most important is the sudden shift back to brawn and bombast for the genial genetic anomaly. Over the last few years, ever since the decent drama The Gridiron Gang, Johnson has dropped the steroid portion of his onscreen personality to play a more likable, somewhat lunkheaded version of his pumped up self. He especially excelled in family oriented films, titles like The Game Plan, Race to Witch Mountain, and most recently, Tooth Fairy. Interestingly enough, each one of those movies took in more money on their opening weekends - $23 million, $24.4 million, and $14 million, respectively) - than Faster could muster ($12 million) over an extended stay.
So clearly, fans want to see their favorite ex-grappler play to the pre-tween market. Faster was conceived as a dark, disturbing revenge flick, meaning it was never going to match the moneymaking potential of such PG-rated fare. But there was a time when Johnson was considered a viable replacement for ‘80s icons like Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Jean-Claude Van Damme. Like the attempts to turn ex-athletic showman like Steve Austin and John Cena into film stars, The Rock was positioned as the nu-new action hero, a grinning goon with just enough likeability to make his marauding manhandling all the more acceptable. He had a huge pre-programmed fanbase, a magnetic celluloid presence, and enough weight to pull off the frequently foolish demands of the over the top entertainment category. Yet Faster followed all these important facets and then…nothing.
There’s a bigger factor at play here, however - one that continues to plague the industry like child star tabloid headlines. Anyone who actually braved the Cineplex, who fought their way through the Harry Potterheads and newfangled Tangled legions, didn’t see the version of Faster as advertised over the last few months. Instead, they experienced a psychological complex quasi-character study with small smatterings of intense yet wholly incorporated stunt set pieces that never tries to pass itself off as a bombastic beefcake shoot ‘em up. In fact, this was the film that director George Tillman Jr. conceived of when he took over for a passing Phil Joanou. It was never meant as an adrenalized explosion of machismo and testosterone. Instead, we are thrust into one man’s moral morass, a chasm so deep and uncomfortable that death is more than retaliation - it’s relief.
Truth be told, the real Faster is so far removed from the amped up idiocy being sold by the Madison Avenue airheads that it’s a wonder audiences didn’t immediately stampede back to the pimply manager demanding their money back. Every avenue of the pre-sell - the teaser, the all important trailers, the TV ads, the guest spots - all focused on the fire-up thrills being promised and planned. You’d think from the early raves to the revisionist campaign that Johnson’s Driver character was going to run out of prison (which he literally does) and never let up for 90 minutes. Instead, we get important scenes of background and character development, heartbreaking sequences involving an ex-wife (and a child), a world weary mother, and a dead father who could never accept his bastard bi-racial son. The basic premise - that Driver is out to avenge his brother ambushed as part of a robbery gone wrong - was just a ruse, a way of getting to the more compelling elements of the narrative, to wit, the internal battle between our hero and his own blood-spattered conscience.
Of course, such bait and switch is as old as Hollywood itself. Studio frequently fudge the truth about their films in order to trick viewers into giving them a shot. Sometimes, it’s with obvious quote whore compliments. At other instances, it’s the names above the marquee or the genre itself. But in the case of Faster, CBS Films specifically marketed this movie as a thrill-a-second action epic when it was clearly far from it. Using the return of “The Rock” to his previous (and precarious) standing as a full throttle beat-down king, it called to a demo desperate for such steroid raging - and then turned around and delivered something quite different. Had they told the truth about the title, arguing that there would be more conflicts of the soul than wars between weapon wielding bad-asses, the movie may have bombed just as badly. For what it attempted however, for what it wanted to try and achieve, Faster should have been supported instead of fraudulently pigeonholed.
By taking this stupid tactic, the suits guaranteed two things - one, that audiences who saw the film initially would feel ripped off; and two, that they would spread a poisonous word of mouth destined to drive away those who might have actually liked what they saw. It’s the worst kind of mass hysteria - the irritated, entitled kind. If you promise pancakes and deliver sand, you better be prepared for the A-bomb level blowback. While Faster might yet find an audience on home video, such a violation of commercial trust takes the whole business model to task. Next thing you know, someone will be selling a lame Harlequin level vampire romance as God’s gift to cinematic storytelling.
Faster certainly failed for other reasons than a two minute and thirty second filmic flim flam. It has issues both in front of and behind the lens, and lacks the true gravitas to make its ethical dilemmas anything other than tantalizing talking points. Johnson is good, as are his costars Billy Bob Thornton, Carla Gugino, and in a bizarre bit of plot pointing, BBC TV actor Oliver Jackson-Cohen as a dot.com millionaire who moonlights as an assassin and Tillman never rushes to judgment with his players. He lets them have their moments, for good and bad. Yes, Faster is flawed. In fact, those problems may have been the real reason people were pushed away. But the awful ad campaigns didn’t help. Many came to see the return of The Rock. What they got, instead was something unexpected - and by all accounts, unwanted.