Movie Review: In 'Faster,' A Dead-Weight Killer Takes Revenge On Dwayne Johnson

Faster has a hell of an opening. Dwayne Johnson — imposing, singularly determined and looking like The Rock for the first time in quite a while — is released from prison. On foot, he trucks over to an auto scrap yard containing a shrouded Chevelle. As the car is revealed, the song 'Goodbye My Friend' by the De Angelis Brothers kicks in. The man, the car and this theme from a '74 Italian police thriller called Street Law make as good a statement of purpose as any. The suggestion is that Faster will be a movie that plays like The Rock looks: muscular, mean and single-minded.

If only that were true. While the Rock cuts an impressive figure as a violent anti-hero, the movie around him is as misconceived as they come. There aren't enough auto wreck metaphors to get across how thoroughly Faster demolishes a simple revenge movie premise.

We're introduced to three characters: Driver (Johnson), the Cop (Billy Bob Thornton) and the Killer (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). Each gets a character title card just like the ones in the opening of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Just in case anyone misses the reference, the Killer's cell phone ringtone is Ennio Morricone's famous theme from that film. (Neither Thornton nor Jackson-Cohen manage to be nearly as wonderful as Eli Wallach or Lee Van Cleef.)

Driver has been waiting out a ten-year prison sentence with one goal in mind: find and kill the people that killed his brother. Once free he doesn't waste any time, striding powerfully into the office of his first victim-to-be. Driver exchanges no words with his target before putting a bullet in his brain. This action brings the other two characters into Driver's orbit. The cop, estranged from his wife and dealing with a heroin addiction, jumps into the hunt for Driver, much to the consternation of a more competent detective played by Carla Gugino.

Driver's obvious determination to wipe out the crew that murdered his brother also captures the interest of a hidden figure, who hires the Killer. This assassin is a young hotshot who has been successful in business and love (he's dating a devoted young woman played by Maggie Grace) and has turned to killing to alleviate his boredom. You know, as one would do.

(The Killer reminded me of Matt Wagner's original Grendel, Hunter Rose, the rich whizkid who was so bored he started killing people and taking over organized crime. Only shorn of all Grendel's charm.)

As the Killer, Oliver Jackson-Cohen's performance is the most unbelievable and ineffectual I've seen all year. I do want to cut him a break because his role is equally unbelievable and ineffectual. I hated every one of the Killer's irritating, superfluous scenes. Some are more useless than others, as when the audience is held captive to his therapy session as mulls the question of proposing to his girlfriend. All this for a character which, as written, should never have been in the script, much less the film. He's not an interesting onscreen presence, or a useful symbolic or thematic figure. Future screenwriting seminars will hand out glossy 8x10s of the Killer and say 'cut this guy from your movie.'

This guy who doesn't belong in the movie hogs a lot of screen time that would other wise belong to the guy who does. If the movie is a car, the Killer is ten miles of speedbumps. The only thing we're sitting in the Faster auditorium to see is the Rock shooting people in the face, and he's not doing much of it because this wannabe killer is eating his screen time.

Many of the Rock's scenes are great. He looks sharp and unstoppable. The smartest thing the script does is give him almost nothing to say. He works like an implacable machine gunning for each target. When that facade starts to change there's a reason, and it would have worked if the movie hadn't wasted so much time in the hour before. If you think I'm not spending enough time here talking about the star of the film, take that as representative of how much he spends on screen.

I can handle most of the time given to Billy Bob Thornton's cop even though the movie thinks we're not smart enough to know what his role in the story will be. I'm not sure why we need a Bad Santa outtake scene featuring the cop and his pudgy son, but I could deal with that. I can deal with the overt nods to Kill Bill and Vanishing Point and other movies. I can't quite deal with a slo-mo scene set to the Kenny Rogers tune 'Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)' but I would have been willing to look the other way. Maybe that was the point where I was supposed to wish I was watching The Big Lebowski.

I don't know where the movie's distracting impulses from from. Might be the script by Tony and Joe Gayton. (Tony Gayton wrote the sometimes silly but more effective The Salton Sea.) Might be the direction by George Tillman, Jr., who made Notorious (the Biggie Smalls movie), Men of Honor and Soul Food. When Faster focuses on Driver the movie works just fine. It's not up to the level of something like Rolling Thunder, but few revenge movies are. When it dallies with a structure that doesn't match the concept and blows precious time on a character that doesn't belong, Faster goes screaming right off a cliff.

/Film rating: 2 out of 10