Dwayne Johnson is an actor who seemed destined for action-star greatness. When Arnold Schwarzenegger turns to Johnson in The Rundown and says “Have fun,” it was a passing of the torch. But that light seems to have diminished as Johnson has, much to the chagrin of his fans, chosen family fare that doesn’t really encourage the bloody mayhem someone of Johnson’s physique and charisma could deliver. As if to answer all those who were unhappy with films like The Game Plan and Tooth Fairy, in the first five minutes Faster has Johnson get out of prison, drive a badass Chevelle, and shoot a guy in the head. The film then struggles to keep the remaining 90 minutes interesting, going so far as to introduce a distracting antagonist whose only purpose is to provide brief action scenes. Weighed down further by vague notions of sin and salvation, Faster is a surprisingly joyless affair that still manages to show Johnson’s dramatic range, but replaces his charismatic grin with deep sorrow.
While Johnson is the man on the poster, Faster has three main characters, each dealing with their own addictions. Johnson plays “Driver”, a man who is out to kill the folks responsible for murdering his brother. Billy Bob Thornton is “Cop”, a detective who is on the cusp of retirement, a disgrace to the department, and estranged from his family due to his drug addiction. These two characters would have been enough for a solid film. If you’re going to boil down character names to their occupation, it makes sense to boil down your story and keep it as lean as possible. But then Faster throws “Killer” (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) into the mix. Killer seems like he’s wandered in from a less-interesting movie created from a poorly-developed idea. Killer is a bored millionaire who moonlights as a hitman simply because he likes the thrill. He’s hired by a shadowy figure to take out Driver before he can complete his revenge.
There’s nothing wrong with writers trying to provide character development (in fact, I encourage it), but Killer’s character isn’t interesting and he’s a distraction from the story. He’s not part of Killer’s revenge and he isn’t part of Cop’s investigation. He’s “Time for an Action Scene Guy”. Are things slowing down? Then let’s have a car chase with Killer, Driver, and their sweet rides! But a car chase would work just as well if Driver were trying to elude the cops. Not only does Killer not fit into the Driver-Cop conflict, the film also slows down to show us Killer’s personal drama with his significant other (Maggie Grace), which is superfluous-squared.
Taking time away from Johnson almost makes it feel like the story doesn’t trust him to hold the screen. Driver is a man of few words and many angry glances, but Johnson delivers on the dramatic material. This isn’t a wise-cracking protagonist, but a furious, monomaniacal, force of nature who is not to be fucked with. Thornton does a good job playing pathetic as Cop wrestles with a heroin habit and trying to reconnect with his estranged wife and son. Thrown on top of this sadness salad is a healthy dressing of religious foreboding as a preacher shouts messages of forgiveness on the radio. It’s all a bit too much and when Killer waltzes in with his “murder-is-my-hobby” philosophy, it only highlights the film Faster isn’t and isn’t trying to be.
I don’t mind that director George Tillman Jr. has made a gritty, un-ironic action film. I mind that he has trouble finding its energy and keeping the pacing active. Tillman knows how to direct competent action scenes and does a great job at holding tension between two actors, but the intensity of plot is undone by the poorly-handled drama and wasting time with Killer.
If all you’ve been missing from Dwayne Johnson in his career as a movie star is him shooting people in the head, then Faster won’t disappoint. But I want him to embrace Schwarzenegger’s advice to “Have fun.” While I would prefer to see Johnson in action films as opposed to films, I mainly just want to see him in good films. Burdened by poorly-handled religious themes and an unnecessary supporting character, Faster isn’t much fun but it does have Dwayne Johnson being a badass, and that’s almost enough.