Misfired actioner marks Dwayne Johnson's return to muscle movies.
It doesn’t get much more basic than 1+1+1=3, and that’s the formula in “Faster,” in which three guys named Driver, Cop and Killer alternately and sometimes simultaneously play pursued and pursuer. Hinging on the elemental premise of a newly released ex-con hunting down those responsible for murdering his brother, this misfired actioner marks Dwayne Johnson’s return to muscle movies, this time without any measurable humor. His fanbase will nevertheless support this ideal award-season counterprogrammer, boosting CBS’ fledgling film division in the process.Still, if hardcore action fans step back a moment, they will notice a pronounced shortage of the mind-blowing action sequences they have come to expect from such material, especially given the souped-up cars (like the ultra-cool, black, early ’70s Super Sport Chevelle helmed by Johnson’s Driver), here on practically erotic display. But director George Tillman Jr. and screenwriters Tony and Joe Gayton tool their breathlessly edited vehicle for five-gear speed, shoehorning exposition into adrenaline-pumping scenes to ensure a minimum of pauses or chances to question what’s really going on. Upon his release from prison, Johnson’s Driver literally runs away from the facility and straight into a junkyard, where he drives off in the Chevelle. Armed with a list of targets and the grim visage of an ancient warrior, he first assassinates a nerdy guy in a Bakersfield telemarketing firm, all of it caught on a surveillance camera. Bakersfield police have a face, but lead cop Cicero (Carla Gugino) wonders about motive, and also about why the declining, heroin-addicted Cop (Billy Bob Thornton) has been assigned to the case when he’s just two weeks from retirement. The interplay here is instantly tired, and Thornton and Gugino are hard-pressed to spice up the routine. “Faster” is a movie distracted by itself, and struggles to find any particular tone or groove outside Driver’s man-on-a-mission single-mindedness. As if to underline this problem, the film sets up the third part of its formula by introducing Killer (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), whose hits-for-hire apparently fund his sleek designer lifestyle, which includes a hot g.f. (Maggie Grace, wasted). Having turned his formerly crippled body into a marvel capable of superhuman yoga moves, Killer is now hired to take out Driver. The script inserts some elaborate flashbacks that explain the injustice done to Driver and his brother (a near-cameo from Tom Berenger suggests the Driver is a victim of circumstances). What’s blithely ignored is the fact that it’s impossible for a big guy to drive like Steve McQueen across half of California, killing guys right and left, and not be the object of a massive dragnet, let alone go unnoticed when he marches into a supposedly secure hospital to kill a patient at point-blank range. Johnson isn’t allowed to display his usually ingratiating charm, playing a pure vengeance machine with no outlets. Thornton’s Cop is at least given some unexpected, even startling character twists, though Killer is so absurdly conceived that not even Jackson-Cohen’s Jude Law-like smoothness can save the role. Production elements are hyper-polished, with Michael Grady’s widescreen lensing switching between reddish, earth-toned desert settings and wildly theatrical lighting schemes; David Lazan’s production design similarly swerves between realist and over-the-top. Clint Mansell’s score is characteristically intense and jangly.