Review | <i>Faster</i>

Faster, arriving in theaters today on the eve of Thanksgiving, is very much a movie we should be thankful for.

Not because it’s particularly excellent, mind you -- the writing and direction leans too heavily on empty emotional moments, the dialogue is frequently laughable, the characters are paper-thin and the whole story is completely absurd -- but rather because it is exactly what we don’t see enough of anymore. Cut from the cloth of classic ‘70s and ‘80s pulp action flicks, Faster is a movie that succeeds primarily on the strengths of its high style and its captivating leading man-hero: former wrestler-turned-actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

The story, as we gradually learn, follows Johnson’s recent ex-con Driver -- there are very few proper names to be found in this movie -- as he cuts a swath of bloody revenge for the murder of his brother. There’s a lot of mystery surrounding that tragic day, but our Driver knows how to find each of the players involved and he has every intention of giving them all face time with his beastly six-shooter hand cannon.

Two seemingly opposing forces are working against Driver’s interests. First you have Cop (Billy Bob Thornton), a former CRASH brute from the LAPD who now approaches retirement as he struggles with a heroin addiction and an estranged wife, who also happens to be a former informant. Opposite Cop is Killer (newcomer Oliver Jackson-Cohen, whom you should keep an eye on), an ego-driven perfectionist and professional assassin who is hired by an unnamed individual to take out Driver before he can play out his little revenge plot.

This threesome of Johnson, Thornton and Jackson-Cohen form the center of the movie in every respect. Their archetypical names belie the depth each character is allowed to have, whether its Driver’s conflicting emotions about carrying out his grim task, Cop’s fumbling attempts to reinsert himself into the lives of his wife and son or Killer’s desire to strike out in an entirely new direction, giving up his trade and focusing on the adventure that is marriage and starting a family. Johnson is the strongest; he’s a captivating presence on screen, a talented performer who really seems to understand how to embody what people love about action heroes, even rough-around-the-edges anti-heroes like Driver.

Despite the best efforts of both the actors and the director, George Tillman Jr. (Barbershop, Notorious), the movie falters when things get emotional. Credit to the players for keeping things watchable, but the heart of Faster is in its high-styled action. Any shift away from that and things start to drag. It’s telling that the 98-minute runtime ends up feeling much longer than it is. It doesn’t help that a late-developing plot twist is easily puzzled out roughly halfway through, which means we spend the rest of the movie waiting for Driver to figure out this painfully obvious fact that’s been staring him in the face all along.

It’s the effort to give the three core characters depth that proves to be the movie’s undoing. Pin the bulk of the shortfalls in this regard on screenwriter siblings Joe and Tony Gayton. They’ve crafted an entertaining revenge tale that too frequently gets hung up on its own pathos and ridiculous dialogue. Jeers to Stillman as well, who certainly could have trimmed a few unnecessary moments out. Case in point: Killer, having decided that he wants to give up professional murder for a life of holy matrimony, but only after he finishes one last job (yeah, that happens), asks his wife-to-be why, after years of being together, his dangerous work no longer factors into her attraction to him. “Because I’m your wife now,” she replies, as if that says it all. Oy.

Faster is at its best when its assorted players are either actively trying to off one another or exchanging the bare minimum of tough guy banter. There are gunfights, knife fights, car chases, foot chases, brawls and more, all of them artfully captured on film. Some of it is over-the-top or just plain nonsensical -- during one flashback, Driver makes a high-speed getaway from the cops, inexplicably driving in reverse the entire time -- but really, it all just adds to the charm. This is pure entertainment, a guilty pleasure that you shouldn’t feel guilty for indulging in.

So on this Thanksgiving, be thankful that a movie like Faster gets to open in theaters. Sure it’s a little overwrought at times, but it stays true to its pulp action heart in the end. There are too few movies like that anymore. For all of its flaws, Tillman and his team succeed admirably in delivering this relic from the ‘80s, repackaged behind slick cinematography and presented with all the flair of a 21st century mega-budget action blockbuster.

Faster opens in theaters nationwide today.

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