Spending the last few years of his career trying to make family audiences adore him, Dwayne Johnson has elected to return to his action roots with the thriller “Faster.” Wonderfully sleazy in spurts, R-rated, and filled with asphalt-peeling car stunts, the picture has enough nasty attitude in the early going to inspire unexpected confidence in director George Tillman, Jr. The woozy sense of sick doesn’t make it to the very end, but it carries the picture far enough to extract a faint recommendation, especially to anyone feeling nauseated by Johnson’s recent career choices.
Driver (Dwayne Johnson) has just served a 10-year prison sentence for a botched bank robbery that resulted in the murder of his beloved brother. Gifted a gun and Chevrolet Chevelle, Driver hits the road, planning to slaughter those responsible for the grisly death. Gunning down a range of perverts and scumbags, Driver finds his task challenged by Killer (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), a psychologically fractured hitman/former tech guru who hunts for pleasure, not for cash, taking the job despite protests from his new wife (Maggie Grace). Also in the mix is Cop (Billy Bob Thornton), a junkie detective partnered with Cicero (Carla Gugino), looking to bring Driver to justice.
“Faster” commences with a delicious monosyllabic opener dusted with a series of classic rock tunes. Here we meet the characters in purely visual terms, with the director covering their character beats using bits of style and shots of sweaty staring, establishing the murderous trio as separate forces to be reckoned with, all addicted to their own personal poison. “Faster” kicks off with a mighty grindhouse sweep, itching to raise some hell as caged animal Driver is unleashed from his cell, literally running away from prison to commence his “Kill Bill” odyssey of vengeful fury. It’s a corker of an opening that seizes an atypical concentration for the genre, establishing an unflinching tone of revenge that refuses any sort of levity.
Driver’s mission is brought clearly into view by Tillman, Jr., who keeps the first half of “Faster” efficient, bloody, and brooding, molding Driver after Clint Eastwood, keeping the gunfire high and the vocabulary low. Hulked out, Johnson makes for a swell shadow of doom, storming the locations with a hyperventilated fixation that makes for a few brutal showdowns, with additional thrills provided by rumbling car stunts that keep the engines revved and the tires squealing. Establishing the brute’s mission, “Faster” doesn’t have to gesture much to make an impression, observing Driver as he hunts down old enemies one by one. The relative simplicity of the first act makes for an exhilarating smorgasbord of junk food cinema tropes.
It’s a crime screenwriters Tony and Joe Gayton aren’t more secure in their vision. Despite establishing three vivid characters (bestowing Killer with surplus Brit eccentricity), the writers look to hang this violent display on something substantial, having Driver confronted with biblical forces when one of his old foes turns out to be a radio-savvy preacher. The AM-enabled hellfire taunts challenge the character’s sense of handgun justice, thus throwing off the movie’s squinted reign of terror. The development of a conscience slows “Faster” to a crawl, while stripping the film of its thrilling weightlessness. Suddenly there’s a plot and dirty deeds to reflect upon, and all of it seems far too calculated to appease hungry actors demanding redemptive dimension.
“Faster” shifts into park for the snoozy conclusion, bringing down the experience in an effort to resonate with the audience through some faint type of spiritual awareness. Moviegoers don’t need the moral reinforcement, as I’m positive a majority of viewers out there are more than happy watching Johnson rampage in a singular display of ass-kickery. Tepid characterization need not apply.