"Faster" is a lean, mean revenge thriller that works because of the charisma of its two key players, Dwayne Johnson and Billy Bob Thornton, and because of the no-jokes brutal attitude the film takes. There's an entire subplot that feels like a miscalculation, but what's good about the film is so good that I would recommend it to action fans without hesitation, and it's one of those better-than-it-needs-to-be examples of a genre that could easily cross over to a larger audience as well.
George Tillman makes both good and bad choices as director here, and there are times when his style feels too much like he's making sure that his film looks the way action films are "supposed to" instead of just telling his story. But for the most part, his work here is really solid, and he certainly knows how to pace a film like this. One of the things that works best about it is the way he opens the film. Dwayne Johnson plays Driver, a man we find in a jail cell, pacing, already in motion. He's taken to see the Warden, played by Tom Berenger, and then shown the door, a free man. As soon as he's clear of the fence, he starts running. Driver can't wait to get moving, can't wait to get to his business. He finds a scrap yard, makes his way to a specific corner of it and finds what he came for. A car. His car. And inside, a name and an address. And a gun. Everything he needs to get started paying back the rotten sonsofbitches who killed his brother and put him behind bars.
And for Driver, that's all there is in the movie. That singular forward motion, that burn that he's trying to soothe in some way. It's my new favorite Dwayne Johnson performance, even if I still give the edge to "The Rundown" as a movie. What I like here is the way he uses his size and his strength to commit blunt force trauma on anything in his path. He is this sad-eyed broken-hearted missile, and there's not a terrible one-liner in the film, thank god. This is not a joking action hero. This is a guy taking action against a world that tried to kill him but failed, and Johnson commands the screen in every single screen.
In my upcoming interview with Billy Bob Thornton, we talk about the archetype that Leone loved so much of having a Good, a Bad, and an Ugly, and I ask him about how his character Cop fits the archetype of the Ugly in this film. Because screenwriters Tony Gayton and Joy Gayton gave Thornton something to chew on, he responded with a really great, weatherbeaten performance, a cop with a personal agenda and a low-grade junk habit, a cliche given enough quirk and soul to stand out. He looks scooped out, shell-shocked, but with just a slight dim little spark of life still pushing him through each day. He's teamed with Cicero (Carla Gugino), a younger detective who still has ambition, and they play well off one another in the movie. Cop is estranged from his wife Marina (Moon Bloodgood) and his son Tommy (Aedin Mincks), but he's genuinely trying to work things out with them. Thornton doesn't play his character as a good guy or as a bad guy. He's just a guy trying to make it to retirement, and he plays his scenes with his son with a lovely delicate touch, a good dad in a tough situation. I'm really impressed by how much he does with what could easily have been a thin character as written.
There's a third part to the puzzle that is "Faster," and here's where I have my one big problem with the film. Oliver Jackson-Cohen stars as Killer, a hired gun who is contacted by a mysterious client and set loose on Driver's trailer as soon as he hits the street. Killer is an interesting character, and his relationship with his girlfriend Lily (Maggie Grace) is played well, although it's obviously been cut to the bone in this final edit of the film. But the problem is that it doesn't belong in "Faster," any of it. Killer ultimately plays no role in the way the film wraps up, and thematically, he doesn't add anything to the movie. He's a lead character in another movie who appears to have wandered into this one, and to no effect. Every second of the film we spend with him is time we're not spending with Driver or Cop, and that's a mistake. Those two are the film. And in the end, only they really matter to the story. Killer is superfluous, and it's a weird miscalculation for a film to make.
George Tillman Jr. has had an uneven career so far. I think "Soul Food" is a confident family drama, and "Notorious" is a heartfelt, if soft-pedaled, biopic. "Men Of Honor," though? Terrible. It's a film that starts off on the wrong foot in every way, tone and pace, and never recovers. "Faster" occasionally feels like it's using style tics to cover a lack of confidence, but there are other stretches where it feels like Tillman knows exactly what he's doing. I think the film doesn't quite tie it all together thematically, but the ideas of forgiveness and redemption and revenge bouncing around in there are all potent, and he lands enough punches to make it count. In the end, I invested in Driver and Cop and this struggle towards some sense of grace. Supporting players like Courtney Gains and Mike Epps and John Cirigliano and Jennifer Carpenter all do solid work, etching in their characters quickly. By the time Driver comes face to face with the last name on his list of people who have to die, an Evangelist played by the always-awesome Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, it mattered to me what happened, and that's how I know an action movie's got its hooks in me. I wasn't just waiting for the movie to go through the motions… I was invested. "Faster" may not do everything right, but it does enough things well that it stuck with me afterward, and it feels like a major step in the right direction for Dwayne Johnson in particular.
"Faster" opens in theaters everywhere on Wednesday, Nov. 24.