Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Review: "Faster"

There's actually a lot of things to like about "Faster," but the final mixture of dissimilar elements leaves us with a strange creature whose head doesn't quite know what its tail is doing.

This new revenge drama at the very least brings Dwayne Johnson out of his self-imposed exile in kiddie flicks ("Tooth Fairy," "The Game Plan") and back into rougher fare. Let's face it, when one resembles the former pro wrestling star dubbed The Rock, he just naturally fits better in vengeful badass mode.

At first, we think director George Tillman Jr. is going for a parody, so over-the-top is the opening sequence.

Johnson plays a prison inmate who's just been sprung after 10 years hard time. After enduring a sanctimonious speech from the warden (Tom Berenger, in a throwaway cameo) he marches impatiently out of the prison gate into the desert sun. No one is there to greet him, so he literally runs to town. Waiting for him there is a souped-up Chevrolet Chevelle SS, with a gun under the seat and a list of names and addresses of people he is supposed to kill.

But screenwriting brothers Tony and Joe Gayton are actually going for something a little more sophisticated here -- a morality tale about vengeance and forgiveness, and a future enslaved to the past. Maybe that's why the principal characters are never given names, just titles. Johnson's is "Driver," since he was the wheel man on a bank robbery that went bad, leaving his brother dead and his mind fixated on slaughtering those who did it.

(The film's title is a little unclear. There are two nifty chase sequences, but I would hardly call this a car picture. And, if anything, the pace of the killings slows down the longer the movie goes on.)

Driver marches into a local telemarketing office, and without a word blows away the guy who played the bad kid in "Children of the Corn." Personally, I'm in favor of wiping out everybody that had anything to do with that movie.

Billy Bob Thornton plays Cop, a high-strung detective who's something of a laughingstock in the department. The hotshot in the squad (Carla Gugino) isn't too happy about being partnered up with a loser, who's even got the proverbial two weeks until retirement to boot.

Then there's Killer (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), a British assassin with some personal issues. Rather than being a cold executioner, he's an angsty Gen Y kid who pops prescription meds and talks to his therapist over the phone while he's on the job -- in this case, taking out Driver.

Killer also has a beautiful girlfriend (Maggie Grace) who wants him to give up the assassination game -- though, for a while we think she might have a hand in it too: After a quickie wedding, they decamp to a barren patch for couples' target shooting.

All these loopy pieces spin around each other -- Driver's methodical killings, Killer's neurotic self-absorption, Cop's mumbling and dithering -- before intersecting in the finale, in ways the audience long ago guessed at.

Johnson's the steadying influence, with a face full of scars and haunted eyes, and we want the movie to be about him and his obsession with slaying those who done him wrong -- even when one or two of them express genuine remorse. But "Faster" keeps wandering off.

Thornton's Cop is such a drag, and the whole strange package of an assassin who kills out of a need for validation feels like it was plucked from another movie and sewed onto this one, Frankenstein-style.

2 stars out of four

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