Faster is the first time I’ve seen a movie attempt to become a badass action-movie classic by opening with a close-up of a man’s nipples.  I know you’ve seen the trailers and the posters and you’re going in there expecting to see Dwayne Johnson’s famous arched-eyebrowed glare, or even his surging biceps, but no, the first thing you see on screen in Faster is, in fact, his nipples.  I’m not saying it’s the first movie ever to begin with such a shot, because I’m not willing to do that research.  But it is the first one I’ve seen, and the first of many weird choices in a movie that definitely isn’t the badass action-movie classic it hoped to be.

Faster purports to be a simple, bare-bones revenge thriller, a descendant from the realm once inhabited by giants such as Eastwood and Bronson and McQueen, where a man known only as Driver (Dwayne Johnson, the man formerly known as The Rock) exits prison to immediately search out revenge on the men who killed his bank-robber brother.  Along the way, he has to contend with a low-rent police detective (Billy Bob Thornton), introduced only as Cop, and a pretty-boy hit man (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) introduced only as Killer, who is hired to stop Driver’s rampage.  I think if Faster was content to stay that simple, then it might have been a more creatively successful movie.  But real names and personal histories come into play, and then come the complicated emotional backstories, and soon afterwards there are attempts at sympathy for characters that don’t need to be so sympathetic, and all of a sudden the movie’s less of an old-school action throwback and more of a muddy mess.

Because I’m an optimist, I’m hoping that two good things will come out of the theatrical release of Faster:  The first is that I hope that it gets people to check out one of the movies that obviously inspired it originally – Walter Hill’s underrated 1978 crime flick The Driver (the movie he made right before The Warriors!), starring Ryan O’Neal (surprisingly badass) as The Driver, and Bruce Dern (predictably sinister) as The Detective.  The Driver has some of the greatest movie car chases you have probably never seen, done in real life with real cars, long before computer effects were ever a possibility.  It’s also about as terse and as direct as cinema gets.  It’s just this car thief trying to get his job done without letting this detective trip him up – of course there’s a pretty lady in the mix, but no pretty-boy hitman or orbit of peripheral characters to complicate things.  Anyway, whether or not you go to see Faster, track down The Driver.  You’ll probably like it a lot.

The second hope I have, probably a bit more likely, is that Faster does well enough at the box office to send Dwayne Johnson the message that he belongs in action movies, but not so well that he thinks this movie is as good as we can expect from him. 

Faster’s director, George Tillman Jr., is a journeyman with some admirable reach (see my review of Notorious), but ultimately, when you’re trying to make an adrenaline-amassing revenge thriller, the guy who made Soul Food probably isn’t going to get into that end zone.  Faster has a bunch of good moments, but not nearly enough, and rather than sending an audience out of the theater with their blood pumping, any momentum the movie had going has completely derailed by the end.  Nice try – seriously – but still not anything anyone will remember half as fondly as I remember The Driver.

But back to Dwayne Johnson.  The fellow has all kinds of promise in this arena.  I once wrote a detailed thesis bemoaning the lack of modern-day action heroes, in which I considered some of the prospects at hand.  (My conclusions were dire.)  Though I wondered about his ability to play it straight with no winking, I think most action fans will agree with me that Johnson is one of our last best hopes.  He’s convincing as a person you’d prefer not to mess with, but unlike most muscle-monsters he can actually speak and convey emotion, and audiences clearly love him.  Generally he’s been working in shoddy kids’ movies, but Faster seemed to be a step in the right direction.  I was excited. 

More encouraging, the fact that the Killer character was an avid practitioner of yoga and a dead ringer for Jake Gyllenhaal made me hope that Faster was going to be a commentary on this state of action-movie affairs.  I thought that by taking on this reedy, geeky pretty-boy, Dwayne Johnson was going to send a message to the legions of pretty-boys and nerds who have been claiming the majority of action-movie lead roles for such a long time now.  As it turns out, the Jake Gyllenhaal guy hardly has any interaction with Johnson’s character, aside from one lame shoot-out which, no joke, is interrupted by a little girl.  There’s actually no reason for this character to be in the movie, if you’ve seen it and you go back to think about it.  No offense to Oliver Jackson-Cohen (except to note that badass action heroes rarely have hyphenated surnames), but I didn’t go in to Faster to see him cavorting around in sports cars and implusive wedding scenes with Maggie Grace from Lost.  I came to see Dwayne Johnson knock his lights out, and I didn’t even get that.

The movie also makes the strange choice of having the Killer’s ringtone be Ennio Morricone’s theme from The Good, The Bad And The Ugly (a dangerous choice with me, as it’s my favorite movie of all time and no movie should reference it lightly.  I worry that the movie is trying to set up the Driver/Cop/Killer axis of characters as an iconic trio to compete with that previous perennial of simple and pure ass-kickery.  Any modern-day movie is destined to fall short of such a comparison.  Why set yourself up to fail?  The Good, The Bad And The Ugly still carries a mythic resonance because it doesn’t clutter itself with the kind of irrelevant side business that Faster chooses to shoulder.  Clint Eastwood’s character never nearly came to tears over his beloved brother (“Gary!”).  Lee Van Cleef’s character never struggled with an adversarial wife, or a comically chubby pre-adolescent son in a Little League outfit.  In fact, we never even learned those two guys’ names for sure.  The only backstory that The Good, The Bad And The Ugly feels [almost perversely] compelled to provide (and it is compelling) is Tuco’s.  And it’s fair to say that, again no offense intended, Oliver Jackson-Cohen is no Eli Wallach.

I could talk about The Good, The Bad And The Ugly all day, but none of us came here for that.  We came here to talk about Faster, and unfortunately I think I’ve said all there is to say about it.  Faster introduces some interesting thematic overtures about race and faith and addiction and forgiveness, all of which I’d like to see explored in a different movie, but they enter this one too late in the game to register.  This is not a movie that has the timelessness or the weight of some of the classics it explicitly references, and it’s not as breezy or as reckless as it would need to be to be trashy fun.  In the end, Faster limps towards the middle and just slumps down, waiting for the credits to roll.  But Dwayne Johnson?  Maybe, hopefully, we’ll see him in something better next time.  Somebody hook him up with a Neil Marshall or a Joe Carnahan or hell – long as I’m dreaming it – a Walter Hill.  It can’t be that hard to make this happen.