David Oliver: If you’re a Dwayne Johnson fan, but you’ve had your fill of seeing him ferrying kids back to their space ship or strapping on fairy wings and hockey pads for a while, there’s little doubt you’ll get your action fix sated with Faster. Easily Johnson’s grittiest movie to date, it’s built like the man himself: solid (he’s noticeably bulked back up for this role) and with almost no fat. It wouldn’t be surprising if Johnson had heard the fans who wanted him to get back to extracting people’s spines and showing it to them and looked to deliver that here. Faster doesn’t have the comedic appeal of The Rundown, nor even the buddy cop aspect of Walking Tall whatsoever, and that’s by design. There are at most maybe two or three laughable lines in the entire film. Rather, this is an old-style revenge yarn with a couple of modern adjuncts tossed in.
Faster is very much a Point A to Point B tale; so much so in fact, that it doesn’t even bother with real names for the main characters. You’ve got Driver (Johnson), Cop (Billy Bob Thornton) and Killer (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). That’s who they are and what they do. Driver’s purpose in life – to snuff out with extreme prejudice the people responsible for his brother’s brutal murder – is revealed within the first ten minutes. Though, considering his direct approach methodology for accomplishing his goal, namely distractions (including audiences) be damned, a more apt name for Driver may have been Buster Capandbounce.
Meanwhile, Thornton’s Cop is the Det. Prendergast of the piece. He’s a broken down former ace who’s just looking to make it to retirement. But he needs a bit of pharmaceutical help (i.e. heroin) to get there. So of course it would be him who catches this case 10 days before he hands in his shield, along with Det. Cicero (Carla Gugino), who knows his reputation as a former (although not current) druggie and isn’t happy at the prospect. Cop’s backstory is that he’s looking to reconcile with his estranged wife (Moon Bloodgood), also a former junkie, and that he doesn’t spend enough time with his son. He’s coasting along in an occasional drug stupor until it’s time to hang it up.
Killer is an erudite, British, overachieving yuppie, a man who rose from a childhood defect with his legs to become successful in every aspect of his life: business (a young tech millionaire), personal achievements (he’s scaled Everest) and…yoga (he’s beaten it). Since he has few worlds left to conquer, he’s turned to contract killing. He has a girlfriend, Lily (Maggie Grace), who is fully supportive of his career. Killer is finesse where Driver is brute force, a fact in which he takes great pride. He gets the case to take out Driver and likely places where Driver will be, namely Driver’s planned hit list, from a mystery client. So he sets out in his Ferrari to go to work.
Renn Brown: David has given you a pretty clear idea what the film is about so I will now invite you to picture, if you will, that familiar image of the marathon runner approaching the finish line, pushing with all he or she has got. Then imagine the tragic sight of one of those runners that has literally burnt every calorie their body has to offer, and as if someone has pulled a power cord or cut the marionette’s strings, they collapse in heaping pile of appendages. Their momentum may even cause the pile to skid across the dirt to that place right before the finish line. What’s this got to do with Faster? You guessed it: metaphor-town. Faster is blisteringly single-minded, so bent on its one goal of showcasing The Badass Formerly Known As The Rock as an unstoppable golem of vengeance, that it becomes a brilliant showreel of why Dwayne Johnson has been heralded as the once and future King of modern action cinema. The film brings no special intelligence or creativity to the table, but its dedication and economy is almost innovative in and of itself, and definitely it’s fun to watch. Unfortunately, Faster is completely incapable of sustaining its meteoric velocity, burning through logic and reason, and in the final few minutes simply collapses from the strain. This happens so close to the end of the movie that we’re pretty much left with a feature-film’s length worth of rock and roll action, but it’s still painful to watch this movie evacuate its bowels all over itself when you’re so close to darting out of the theater ahead of your critical thinking skills.
We’ll certainly throw back and forth about the ending very soon, but aside from that key element, there is a ton of stuff to praise about Faster. The Rock is superb, bringing more than the biggest guns in Hollywood, as he does a legitimately great job of playing badass, while clearly wearing the emotional wounds and vulnerability that got him to his vengeance-focused station in life in the first place. Unlike the screenwriters, he doesn’t phone it in and brings some heart, hope, and edge to the character. The photography is often gorgeous, and even it’s more over-the-top moments serve to make the story more mythic and paint Johnson as a monolithic dealer of death and righteous vengeance.
So before I start to simultaneously gush over and trash the film (the two aren’t mutually exclusive with this kind of single-purpose story), what was your general impression of Faster, Mr. Oliver?
David Oliver: Mr. Brown, yes indeed, let’s save the ending for the ending, because we may differ a bit there. The first thing that needs to be discussed here, though, is definitely Dwayne Johnson’s performance, which is pulsing with the badassery his fans have been feening for for years. He is quite good here, and not in a way that we’re used to seeing from him. Every time I read a review or a comment about the guy, whether the film is good or bad, it’s that the man has a charisma surplus. He can melt lead with his stare, has an eye for comedy, and is as physically gifted a performer out there as anybody, and in most cases more so. Even when he’s doing these family-friendly type flicks, he can balance out his personality with his physicality. The old sports adage applies with Johnson: you can’t shut down his appeal, you can only hope to contain it.
However, the thing about Faster is that he does shut down his trademark swagger and charm. There’s nothing on Driver’s mind except fucking some people up, plain and simple. I attended the press conference for the film this past weekend and Johnson wanted to make a point that he had rededicated himself to portraying this character specifically when it came up. He spent about three months bulking back up (which, according to him, was really only about 15 pounds…I’m thinking closer to 25. He’s a damn T-Rex lately.). He wanted to convey the look of a guy who had spent the last ten years doing two things: getting his prison yard workout on and obsessing about sending people to meet their makers expediently.
When asked about his restored beefiness, Johnson jokingly replied that “bigger is always better.” And that since he’s been doing film, despite the fact that he’s a physical guy, he didn’t want to get pigeon-holed as “the action guy.” That being said, though, he did get back into the action mindset in a big way. Driver comes out of that prison very much like a caged animal. Johnson has played tough guys before, but Driver is on another level for him. Driver is seething, single-minded, internalized rage. There are no quips, no one-liners, no raised eyebrow. Another journo at the presser brought that up, saying that he missed that from Johnson and had been hoping to see it here. Johnson, simply told him that he’d been thinking a little too much about that.
As for other elements of the film, I was surprised that it was George Tillman, Jr. (Soul Food, Notorious) doing the work here. The closest thing he’s ever done to Faster was 2000’s Men of Honor, and that’s still another couple of continents away from this. However, he does just fine here, like you said, Renn, bringing an economy and look that works well for the film. He does indeed contain Johnson here, only letting out one wavelength of the spectrum of his appeal onto this film: his intensity. Then he focuses that to a laser. Tillman has been doing a lot of producing more so than directing the last decade, like the Barbershop franchise in film and TV and Roll Bounce among others. There was really nothing to ever show that he had this kind of eye for action, but he does, and I hope he uses it more in the future.
Renn Brown: Tillman does bring an unexpected amount of ruckus to this action-fest, and while I’m not seeing any top-tier action epics coming out of him necessarily, he could sure as hell out churn out some rock solid flicks. Honestly, I was more exhilarated, more often than with the recent output of a “classic” director like Tony Scott, and if Tillman can follow an inverse quality curve from Scott, then who knows- maybe he really will become a big player. What I really love is the mythic quality he brings to the film. It’s not really subtle, especially in a scene like the first meeting of Driver and Cop, but the rest of the film employs sound design and exaggeratedly explosive effects to make a simple shoot-out seem like a duel between cosmic forces- it’s surprisingly effective. Also: Little to no CGI — so refreshing.
As it is, Faster is always competently shot and often (in conjunction with the DPs flashier moments) displays some noticeable personality. As David points out though, the focus is on the characters here, especially Johnson. Don’t take our emphasis on the “single-mindedness” of the film to mean The Rock brought a simple machine-like performance… he does a fantastic job turning it into something much more than that. What’s shocking is how much humanity, heart, and something akin to horror Johnson lets sit right under the surface of his face, even as he’s murdering people. What’s great is that Driver is neither heartless, nor is he full of righteous fury exactly – we can tell that he isn’t exactly enjoying what he’s doing, rather that he feels it must be done, and he’s completely without hesitation in doing it. We’re given the horrifying backstory behind what sends Driver on his rampage, and yet we don’t even need it. Dwayne Johnson does such an effective job at selling the character as a good guy without monologues or other explanatory bullshit that I would have completely bought him as justified in his quest with no context whatsoever.
David Oliver: Never is Johnson’s emotional depth and internal conflict felt more than during a key scene with one of his targets, although I can’t say whom or when. But it’s a pretty powerful scene, nicely played on both sides. Johnson stated that it was a particularly emotional day that day and it shows. It ‘s the most vulnerable Johnson’s probably ever been on film to date. Other performances were fine if unspectacular, although Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje is quite good in a limited role. He’s another of these rare large guys who can play all sides of the emotional gridiron well. Thornton could play his role in his sleep and it wasn’t too terribly challenging for him. Although at the press conference, he was killing the room with his answers to questions posed to him, a couple of which went on to morph into some fun anecdotes and opinions. Even got a picture with the guy. Very gracious and personable.
Jackson-Cohen is a relative newcomer and isn’t uninteresting by any stretch here as Killer. He was given his due and he brought a different vibe than what we were getting with Driver. But ultimately, his character and entire subplot looks like a discarded idea from Smokin’ Aces, worked in to provide a couple more action scenes more than anything else. That’s not a knock on Jackson-Cohen at all, just that, as tight as Faster was, he’s the odd element out. Gugino makes the most of what she has to work with. She’s mostly a background player here with a couple of key scenes of expo with Cop. Maggie Grace condenses the typical relationship arc from supportive girlfriend to nagging wife in record time; and Tom Berenger and Mike Epps put in some fairly meaningless cameos.
Renn Brown: Frankly, all characters but the central three have melted from my mind, including the two women who endure extremely thin roles. Gugino is an appendage of Thornton’s Cop character- someone to call, someone to catch shit from, but is ultimately meaningless. I will say a woman has the best one-liner in the film though (yelled at Driver as he storms off to do more damage).
Jackson-Cohen was an odd addition to the film, even if his Lamborghini, cut suit, and ultra-precision methods were in such distinctly clear contrast with Johnson’s Chevelle, leather jacket, and pure concussive force. The “Killer” was the most comic-book-feeling piece of the movie (not necessarily a bad thing), and the film makes a genuine attempt at giving him an arc and interpersonal conflict, but ultimately he never elevates into more than some extra friction for Johnson’s character. The way their final confrontation goes down makes it clear that he was never meant to become the ultimate roadblock of the Driver’s quest. It’s a shame too, Jackson-Cohen is a fairly charming and believable software-developer-turned-hobbyist-hitman, and aggressively silly relationship shifts with his girlfriend aside, I dug the motivation they gave him. Like the rest of the film, clarity and simplicity rule the day, which serves a film with clear ambitions well.
So it seems we’re going to be differing on our opinions of the climax though, eh? I started with a pretty dramatic summary of my feelings, so I’ll be interested in hearing yours…
David Oliver: I didn’t necessarily think the film stumbled and died at the tape (on a complete tangent, I’ve seen that for real up close at the finish line of a marathon it’s just like, damn…). I think that the ground work was laid, character-wise, for the film to go a couple of ways; even how it looked like it might have gone. That’s nebulous, I know, but I can’t say any more than that. When you see the film, you’ll get it. But I disagree that it filled the diaper in the climax.
In wrapping up, I think that this’ll be a good experience for fans who have been clamoring for Johnson to get back to some ass-kicking. I think if he wanted to claim the crown of king of modern action films he very easily could. I personally would love that, but I respect that he’s trying to not be one-note. I just hope he picks slightly better projects in the future. If you consider the scene in The Rundown with Arnold a passing of the torch, then Johnson almost gets his Terminator on here. He doesn’t say much, and he’s all business. But unlike the T-101, he’s very affecting with his intensity. Faster is a solid return for him: well made, well shot, mostly well-written and well acted.
Renn Brown: Well, I did find the ending fairly disagreeable, though ultimately the film ended up where it needed to be, and I’ll trade five minutes of silliness for a top-down old-school action movie that actually lets Dwayne Johnson fulfill his promise as an action master. It’s just a shame that from the script stage, the film couldn’t have been structured to not run out of breath at the end and have just kept it simple. Scooby-Doo mystery this needed not be, and I hate walking out of a theater with such a bad taste in my mouth after having such a good time (I’m walking into a ton of jokes with that last sentence). Maybe there is something classic about a poorly-thought-out turn of events towards the end of a big action film though, so mileage is gonna vary for different viewers.
David’s right though; it’s not an action classic, but it’s a fun, solid step in the right direction for Johnson, and an overall good time at the movies in a year when the action has gotten awfully bloated and fake. Muscles, muscle cars, bullets, and some seriously mean headshots make Faster worth an action fan’s time.
Renn: 7.0 out of 10
Get run over on the message boards.