After a series of films which saw him go for a decidedly family friendly demographic, former championship wrestler Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is back in R-rated action hero mode with Faster, and the genre is better for it. Don’t be mistaken, however. This is not some amped-up rock ‘em sock’em rollercoaster ride. Instead, director George Tillman, Jr. and writers Tony and Joe Gayton want to explore the darker, more psychologically destructive side of revenge. Instead of catering to the commercial expectations of his target audience, Johnson strives for something more complex and borderline unlikable. While we still find ourselves rooting for his morally bankrupt payback plan, it’s an uncomfortable and often disconcerting kind of support.
Johnson plays Driver, a seemingly decent guy who ended up doing ten years in prison for his part in a bank robbery. After his gang is betrayed and his brother killed, the muscle man vows to kill everyone involved. Upon release, he immediately finds the location of one of his intended victims. One bullet to the brain later, police detective Cicero (Carla Gugino) is on the case. Tagging along is a troubled cop (Billy Bob Thornton) with a nasty ex-wife, a dumpy son, and a big heroin problem; he makes it his mission to stop Driver at all costs. Of course, he will have to compete with a British hitman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) who has an unusual reason for such paid assassin assignments. One by one, our sullen hero locates and eradicates his targets. When he discovers who is really behind his brother’s betrayal, however, the revelation might be more than this one-man murder machine can handle.
With its limited stunt set-pieces and frequent forays into disturbing subtexts, Faster is like an ’80s slasher epic with the typical silent monster replaced by an angry, three-dimensional human being. While the format is the same — a pool of victim fodder is delineated with our certified psycho ready to pick them off one by one — there is more to it than simple slice and dice. Unusual elements like forgiveness, ethics, individual flaws, and recognizable social issues like abortion, addiction, and molestation are crammed into 98 minutes of focused firepower. Granted, the UK dandy who lives like royalty and suffers from a desire to constantly explain himself takes us out of the otherwise strong material, but his interference is minimal. Instead, we are swept up in the performance of our lead, and some very strong work from two other supporting characters.
Johnson is electrifying here, his pumped up physique unable to hide his inner dismay and confusion. It’s not a flashy turn, nor does he rely on witty one-liners to get the crowd on his side. Instead, this is a very troubled soul and he wears said distress all over his worn, world-weary face. Thornton is also terrific as the unkempt bed of a policeman, his various vices wrapped around every wrinkle on his face and every hair on his stubbled chin. But the real revelation here is a last act appearance by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as a former felon turned preacher. This UK thesp turns off his typical cockney accent and delivers a stunning turn as an American evangelist who hopes Driver can forgive him for what he did all those years ago. Though he’s not onscreen very long, his scenes are just incredible.
Since it doesn’t rely on the cliches that riddle the typical action movie, Faster feels fresher. It’s closer to a drama with a determined look and moral compass than a bunch of bullet ballets or car chases strung together. Of course, since skipping off to PG land, Johnson’s fans have been waiting for his return to the toned and the terrifying. Faster may not be a solid adrenaline rush, but it does represent something very powerful — just not in the ways you expect.