"Faster": Has pretensions, doesn't deliver

Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson plays Driver, a bank robber who gets out of prison with vengeance on his mind. The film has aspirations, but is unable to deliver.
Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson plays Driver, a bank robber who gets out of prison with vengeance on his mind. The film has aspirations, but is unable to deliver.
Posted: November 24, 2010

When we first see Driver (Dwayne Johnson), the antihero of George Tillman Jr.'s revenge saga Faster, he's pacing his prison cell.

He's totally buff - all muscles and monochrome prison tats. And he's crazed with impatience.

He paces and paces like the Panther in the classic Rainer Maria Rilke poem.

Rilke and the Rock? Huh?

That, in a word, sums up Tillman's wildly ambitious, but deeply disappointing meta-actioner, which stars Johnson as a bank robber who has spent 10 years in prison planning to kill the villains who ripped off his score and murdered his brother.

Hewn in the image of Mike Hodges' ultimate vengeance fantasy Get Carter, Faster is an uneven '70s throwback with aspirations to classical tragedy. Screenwriter brothers Tony and Joe Gayton and helmer Tillman try - too hard - to inject the film with appetizing philosophical and moral questions.

But they ain't Shakespeare or Sophocles.

The movie starts off with terrific speed, energy, and promise. Before we know anything about him or his dread quest, Driver is out of prison, behind the wheel of a beautiful, black 1971 Chevelle SS, and on his way to his first victim.

Like Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name, whom Johnson clearly tries to channel here, Driver is a man of few words. He kills the guy - an unmemorable, bespectacled office drone - without prefatory remarks or a clever one-liner. He's all business, man.

He moves from victim to victim, crossing off each name (a whiff of Tarantino's Kill Bill?) as he moves on.

Johnson, who is making his return to action after a surreal stint as a kid-friendly Disney toy (The Game Plan, Race to Witch Mountain, Tooth Fairy), delivers a respectable performance. Current silver-screen action figures tend to be over the top, explosive. Johnson's Driver is intense, implosive.

The film is elevated by Billy Bob Thornton, who has a fine turn in a badly written role as a cop - named Cop - hot on Driver's trail.

Guess the character names are supposed to evoke archetypes, but all they do is reinforce movie stereotypes.

Cop, for one, is a messy mass of 'em: He's 10 days away from retirement, a divorcé who has left behind an angry wife and a sad, lonely, and chubby young son. Oh, and he's a heroin addict, too.

Cop's cop partner, Cicero (Carla Gugino) - oh, the classical references again! - is repelled by him.

Tillman ruins the potentially explosive Cop-Driver showdown by introducing a third major character, an assassin hired to bump off Driver.

Played by Brit eye candy Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Killer (natch!) is a billionaire software designer who finds life so boring, so empty of challenge, that he becomes a hit man.

In Faster, Killer seems to be a stand-in for us, the audience, obsessed as we are with finding bigger movie thrills to fill our empty lives.

Tillman, who made a splash last year with his hip-hop hit Notorious, does a nice job of calling into question the assumption, shared by most genre films, that vengeance is the only right course of action.

Is Driver a force for justice, or just another killer, no better than the men he is so intent on destroying? Faster raises the issue, but alas, fails to take it any further.

In his zeal to transcend the genre, Tillman gluts his film with relentless cinematic references to everyone from Hodges and John Boorman (Point Blank) to Quentin Tarantino, John Woo, and Johnny To. The result is a derivative movie that collapses under the weight of its own pretensions.

Faster ** (out of four stars)

Directed by George Tillman Jr. With Dwayne Johnson, Billy Bob Thornton, Oliver Jackson-Cohen and Carla Gugino. Distributed by CBS Films.

Running time: 1 hour, 38 mins

Parent's guide: R (strong violence, drug use, profanity)

Playing at: area theaters

Contact staff writer Tirdad Derakhshani at 215-854-2736 or tirdad@phillynews.com

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