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"FASTER"
(2010) (Dwayne Johnson, Billy Bob Thornton) (R)

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QUICK TAKE:
Action: An ex-con is paroled from prison and immediately seeks revenge on the men who killed his brother.
PLOT:
Driver (DWAYNE JOHNSON) is newly paroled from prison, and he immediately goes searching for the men who killed his brother years earlier and stole their loot from a bank heist. Among those who ambushed the siblings and their cohorts is a homicidal telemarketer (COURTNEY GAINS), an amateur videographer who makes snuff films (JOHN CIRIGLIANO), a crook-turned-club owner (LESTER SPEIGHT), and a reformed minister (ADEWALE AKINNUOYE-AGBAJE).

On Driver's tail are the grizzled Cop (BILLY BOB THORNTON) and Killer (OLIVER JACKSON-COHEN), an assassin hired by the enigmatic man who masterminded the ambush years earlier. Each man has his issues. Cop is a drug addict who quarrels constantly with his partner Cicero (CARLA CUGINO), is estranged from his ex-wife Marina (MOON BLOODGOOD) and son, and is just a week away from retirement. Killer, meanwhile, grew up handicapped, became a self-made millionaire, and now does thrill kills on the side while under the care of a psychiatrist. He is also engaged to be married to Lily (MAGGIE GRACE), who wants him to give up his side job as a contract assassin.

Driver, Cop, and Killer are on a collision course that will test each man's resolve to give in to his baser instincts or realize some measure of enlightenment before it is too late.

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
I keep hoping for Dwayne Johnson (formerly known as "The Rock") to hook up with a great director who will know how to blend the star's natural charisma and hulking physique. You see, I cut my teeth on action movies in the 1980s, the golden age of the action beefcakes as leading man. While movies like "Commando" and "Cobra" were cheesy as all heck then and now, dudes like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone were able to rise to global stardom by working with accomplished filmmakers who knew how to use their talents and (more importantly) mask their deficiencies.

Arnold would never have been ARNOLD if he didn't work with James Cameron on "The Terminator" movies and "True Lies." His action heyday also saw him directed by the likes of John McTiernan ("Predator"), Paul Verhoeven ("Total Recall"), and Ivan Reitman ("Twins"). Between those three men, their credits range from "The Hunt for Red October" and "Die Hard" to "Robocop" and "Ghostbusters." Similarly, Stallone would never have been SLY had he never been directed by the likes of John Avildsen ("Rocky"), Ted Kotcheff ("First Blood"), and Renny Harlin ("Cliffhanger"). Even Steven Seagal worked with Andrew Davis of "The Fugitive" fame early in his career.

Johnson has yet to work with a truly accomplished filmmaker of those gentlemen's collective caliber. As a result, he has drifted back and forth between broad family films that use his physicality as a joke and low-concept action movies that lack the budget and scope of the great shoot-'em-ups and beat-'em-ups of modern cinema. His films are just "OK." They're decent video rentals, flicks you may or may not stop on when flipping cable channels on a rainy day.

His latest effort is only a slight improvement from flicks like "The Rundown," the "Walking Tall" remake, and "Tooth Fairy." This is probably Johnson's "hardest" action film to date, earning its R rating with some bloody gunplay and a minimalist revenge storyline that rather self-consciously echoes the spaghetti westerns of Clint Eastwood's younger days. It's about a Man With No Name who is sprung from prison and sets out to kill the five men who murdered his brother a decade earlier.

And when I say "Man With No Name," I mean it. Perhaps the silliest thing in this deadly serious action pic is the fact that the main characters are not given names but are instead referred to as archetypes. Johnson was a getaway driver before being incarcerated. So, he becomes "Driver." He is pursued by a grizzled homicide detective (Billy Bob Thornton) known as "Cop." At the same time, the enigmatic boss behind the original ambush has hired a contract assassin (Oliver Johnson-Cohen) the film refers to as "Killer."

Oddly, most of the other characters are given actual names. So, instead of Cop's partner being known as "Partner," Carla Cugino must have had it in her contract that she be given a name. Consequently, she's -- wait for it -- Cicero! I still don't quite understand why the first time we see her, she has a tight-cropped hair cut, almost like a man's. And in the rest of the film, she is shown with long hair (presumably a wig) and no one says ANYTHING! But I digress...

A film like this lives and dies with its action. Here, director George Tillman Jr. goes the minimalist route for the most part, and it's a good decision. If a scene requires Johnson to have to walk in and shoot a man in the head, The Rock pretty much just stomps in and plugs the guy between the eyes and then walks out. It was a welcome change from all of the overplayed, wire-fu that "The Matrix" kicked off over a decade ago that has rendered modern action flicks as glorified cartoons.

The best scene in the film is a bathroom fight between Johnson and Lester Speight. One man has an ice pick, the other a knife. The fight is quick and brutal and over in about 30 seconds. Later, a character referred to as The Evangelist pleads for his life at gunpoint, and Driver has to dig deep to see if he still has a soul or will he execute this clearly reformed criminal who has since dedicated his life to God. A little gray area in a black-and-white film was most unexpected at that point.

I'm giving "Faster" a mild recommendation. It's more of a video rental or a Friday night cable stop than something you should pay today's theater prices for. I admired the simple, basic structure of the screenplay (even if I saw the final twist coming a mile away), and the rest of the cast members (including Tom Berenger, Mike Epps, Moon Bloodgood, Xander Berkeley, and Maggie Grace) lend credible support to the star. Good for a 5.5 out of 10. (T. Durgin)




Reviewed November 22, 2010 / Posted November 24, 2010


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