Initially I was a little underwhelmed by Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson’s attempt to go from professional WWE wrestler to movie star, his antics in The Mummy Returns, and his subsequent lead in The Scorpion King coming across as moderately underwhelming. In all honesty, he seemed like just another dumb muscle-bound wrestler, trying to cash in on his physical presence and fame in the ring, by doing pretty average action vehicles tailored purely to show off his physique. However in 2003 he did an underrated little action-comedy called The Rundown (and horribly re-titled ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ in Europe, no doubt to appeal to a younger audience) where he starred with Seann William Scott, Christopher Walken and Rosario Dawson. With a story strikingly familiar to the 80s Robert DeNiro comedy-thriller Midnight Run, it proved to be an enjoyable diversion, and Dwayne Johnson’s witty banter with his co-stars proved to be the most entertaining part. He also showed himself to be a charismatic lead, more than just muscles, and with a clear future in the movie business. The movie even had a nice little blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo from none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger, in an attempt to (almost literally) hand over the action star mantle to Johnson.
The trouble is that there hasn’t really been much place for 80s action stars or their style of movies in the current film world. Audiences want more than just a muscle-bound wannabe actor throwing his fists around in a movie that has next to no discernable story. After all, if you can make Keanu Reeves into a fully-fledged action star in a movie as ‘clever’ as The Matrix, who needs rehashes of films like Commando and Raw Deal? Dwayne Johnson’s career path over the last 10 years has definitely been full of ups and downs, as a consequence of the pigeon-hole that he has been placed within, and despite some attempts to step out into more diverse productions, he has always been stunted by what people expect of him – and what he does (or doesn’t) deliver. Walking Tall was a pretty average actioner, which was too lightweight for its – arguably – serious subject-matter; Doom was just a mess of a videogame adaptation (not the first, either); and Southland Tales was an ambitious but ultimately unsuccessful sci-fi tale. Then, in 2007, he stopped using his wrestling name ‘The Rock’ and started doing work under his real name, but things did not get much better with a serious of ineffective comedies and kids movies marking – in my opinion – some poor choices in his career. Tooth Fairy? Seriously? Now, it seems, he is stepping back into serious action. But can he still be taken seriously?
A man has just been released from prison. We know him only as ‘Driver’. After retrieving his car and obtaining a very large gun, he heads to a small town, walks into an office, through a maze-like room filled with standard desk partitions, and heads straight towards a seemingly innocuous guy on a phone – drawing, taking aim and shooting him dead. The video surveillance captures it all, and the detectives assigned to the case finds out that there is a lot more going on that initially evident. The assailant was a getaway driver at a successful armed robbery, but was betrayed by his own men, watched as his brother was executed, and was promptly executed himself, only to have the bullet ricochet off his skull. After serving his time, it seems Driver is set on a path of pure revenge. He’s going to find the people who killed his brother, and left him for dead, and he’s going to kill them. And nothing will get in his way.
Faster, despite a seemingly relatively straightforward narrative, is anything but your typical revenge action thriller. It may have a basic premise, but it is a film populated by atypical characters, who are all explored far more than you would expect in a movie of this ilk. Driver himself seems like your standard good guy; a man caught doing a bad thing, who paid the price, and now wants revenge for what was done to him. But what makes him different, is his interaction with those he has come to kill – and the way in which these characters themselves are developed. You see, every one of his ‘victims’ has a story: the ostensibly harmless old man who actually turns out to be a dealer in snuff movies (including that of Driver’s own brother); the night-club bouncer who has a family he just wants to say goodbye to; and the assailant-turned-preacher who has been trying to make amends for his past actions. Even beyond these, you get the unusual cop – the lead detective (labelled simply as ‘Cop’) – has a heroin addiction, and a young family to take care of – and the rather quirky hitman who has been dispatched to prevent Driver from continuing his mission; a happily married self-made billionaire who now kills people for ‘the rush’. The style of descriptive names – Driver, Cop, Killer, Warden, Woman, Evangelist – for many of the characters is probably a tribute to the underrated 70s thriller The Driver (starring Ryan O’Neal and Bruce Dern as ‘The Driver’ and ‘The Detective’, respectively), and I think it works quite well here.
With these unusual characterisations, it is apparent that Faster seeks to be different from your usual action thriller and, to a certain extent, it works. There are moments in the movie where the ‘against the grain’ set-up makes for genuine tension – because of how they have been portrayed, you literally have no idea how it is going to turn out for them. Does the preacher’s turn towards God excuse his past actions? And even if it does, will Driver ever be able to forgive him? The scenes where he confronts some of these colourful characters are particularly enjoyable because you don’t know how they will turn out. If this were a movie where everything was black and white – and all the villains were clear-cut in being bad – the outcome would have been clear throughout, and this would have diffused some of the tension, but Faster attempts to be different and, occasionally, it succeeds.
It’s not all good news, however, because Faster's unusual characterisation doesn’t always work. The eclectic group of armed robbers – for a start – doesn’t ring true, and stretches credibility (and consequently your ability to suspend disbelief); and much of it comes across as the filmmakers trying really hard to be different, rather than putting some serious thought into where it is all going. At the end of the day, Faster feels like a condensed, streamlined version of a far more involved narrative, with many elements remaining from the previous, better developed, story (like the unusual characters) but not enough substance to hold it all together as anything other than a watchable, and above-average action-thriller.
Billy Bob Thornton (who, like Morgan Freeman, seems to have been in his fifties for the last 20 years) is an interesting choice for the character of ‘Cop’ and does reasonably well at making the contrivances less jarring – his character may well have a drug problem, but, as the narrative evolves, that does not necessarily make him a bad cop...or does it? His is another one of those characters who just doesn’t come across as clear-cut in any way – in a story like that of the TV series The Shield, you could see how this guy could become something of an anti-hero. He’s partnered with Sin City’s Carla Cugino, who is utterly wasted; as is Terminator: Salvation’s Moon Bloodgood (what a tremendous name), who plays “Cop’s” wife – although at least she still has her own vague back-story. We get cameos from Tom Berenger, whose ‘older man’ roles of late have all been pretty identical (Inception), and a decent effort from Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, who was in G.I. Joe, and will be in the prequel of The Thing being released later this year, here playing the criminal-turned-preacher, simply titled, The Evangelist.
The integral character of the hitman (known as ‘Killer’), however, whose own journey is marginally different from what you would expect, is unfortunately played by Oliver Jackson-Cohen (he was in Going the Distance), and he just grates in the role. And, for a seemingly professional hitman, you have to wonder why, in a short corridor, he can’t hit a guy as broad as Johnson’s Driver. They all don’t do that well with his character arc – it is just as jarring as the performance (although this is, in part, to do with the ‘abbreviated’ new ending of the movie – more on that later). His partner-in-crime, and wife, is played by Maggie Grace, who played the missing young teenager in 2008’s sleeper hit revenge actioner Taken (reminding you that all a youthful-but-adult actress has to do to play a young girl in a movie is run around like a child, scream and act like an immature idiot). Here she’s given little to do but try and support her professional killer husband as he takes his hardest job yet, but she still manages to be one of the most contrary characters painted.
Then there’s Dwayne Johnson’s Driver. The actor-formerly-known-as-The-Rock certainly has presence – and, on the physical side of things, he’s even bigger than ever before (if that’s even possible), with muscles so well developed that they seemed to have left him with no neck. But he’s not here to demonstrate his ass-kicking abilities. Actually it feels like the part was written for someone older than Johnson, and that it was later tailored to suit his particular dimensions when he was brought on board, even his muscles are only for show. But, either way, he acquits himself fairly well in the part – playing it deadly serious and milking his scarred face and determined look for all its worth. The more dramatic flashback sequences, which require him to display a broader range of emotion, still smack as unconvincing, but the rest of it is well done. And his character, whilst not as atypical as many of the others, nevertheless has a few nice touches which, in amidst scowling and glaring (and shooting a ridiculously big hand-cannon) Johnson makes the most of. Still, at the end of the day – and particularly given his film history – you can’t help but wonder whether Johnson has waited too long to get into ‘serious’ roles. He’s clearly proven his affinity for action-comedy, most notably in The Rundown, and trying to drop the humour leaves him far more stoic and, consequently, one-dimensional. I can’t complain about him here, and hope he continues on this path for a while, but I still think he should have made this movie a long time ago – and certainly made it in preference to Race to Witch Mountain and The Tooth Fairy – and then gradually injected more humorous overtones into his action vehicles; particularly given his affinity for comedy. Doing it the other way around, you somehow feel like he’s dropped a side to his personality; a side which actually works quite well.
The Director, George Tillman Jr., proves to be fairly capable when helming an action-thriller, especially considering the only other film he’s done is the biopic, Notorious. Allegedly he was trying to do a 70s throwback revenge flick (à la Kill Bill) and in doing so he crafts some elegant action and stunt sequences – from the flashback of the armed robbery getaway, where Driver gets to show off his skills behind the wheel; to the eventful face-offs with Killer – and maintains some hefty style (arguably an example of style-over-substance) throughout. In spite of these action sequences coming across reasonably sporadically, Faster maintains a good pace for its marginally abbreviated runtime; and it genuinely holds your interest even if the characters seem contrived. His production ends up being very watchable, but still leaves you feeling that it could have been a whole lot more. We all know that the best revenge movies need something a little different to be added into the mix – whether it’s The Bourne Supremacy or Mel Gibson’s Payback – but here the unusual, almost over-developed, characters have a hit-and-miss effect on the movie’s ultimate resonance. At the end, it feels like a bit of a mixed-bag affair, neither catering for the mindless action lovers out there, nor those with a taste for something more weighty. And this is never more evident than in the ending itself.
Which brings me to my biggest gripe about the movie. I’m going to try my best to avoid any kind of spoilers here, but basically I didn’t like the theatrical ending to Faster. Something left me unsettled and dissatisfied. And it was not until I watched the alternate ending on the disc that I realised what had happened. It turns out that the original ending was much longer – about 10 minutes longer – but that it didn’t go down great with test audiences. So, the Director promptly cut a huge chunk out, and then just ended it fairly abruptly without the final action climax. Now I can’t believe that test audiences could have come to this conclusion (they had a similar effect on the recently reviewed The Adjustment Bureau), and I strongly advise that newcomers to this film should stop the main feature 5 minutes before the credits. The exact point is the final scene by the lake, where Driver has the sun shining down at the camera from behind his head. You should then proceed to the HD-presented Alternate Ending, which runs at 12 minutes, and includes the missing footage, as well as, some of the ending seen in the theatrical cut of the movie. It’s a much better experience, giving you better closure with regards to the various characters’ story-arcs. It doesn’t make this film a great revenge actioner, but it does take it up a notch.