Faster review

Duncan salutes the return of The Rock to what he does best, as he catches up with the UK release of Faster...

With Dwayne (formerly ‘The Rock’) Johnson finally free of his old wrestling moniker and back as the lead in an action-based movie, where he belongs, I really can’t express my gratitude enough at seeing his career get back on the right track. Faster may not be an outstanding film, but it’s a serviceable genre movie and, more importantly, one whose real value lies in the utilization of its leading man within a role that instantly diminishes the grim memory of Tooth Fairy.

My love of Johnson’s film career is based entirely on its own merit as, I confess, I haven’t ever seen him wrestle, after leaving my affinity for that particular sport in my mid-teens. Therefore, when I first saw him appear in The Mummy Returns alongside Brendan Fraser and the gang, I was quite awestruck by his physical presence, in a way that I hadn’t really witnessed since growing up in the eighties, when most of my cinematic heroes seemed to possess inhuman physiques.

Physicality will only get you so far in Hollywood, though. Just ask the likes of Olivier Gruner and Ralf Moeller. In order to make the leap from sports star or martial artist to the star of a mainstream blockbuster, there has to be an extra level of appeal and charisma, something that Johnson appears to have by the truck load.

A promising start saw him capitalise on The Mummy Returns by starring in The Scorpion King (which still holds a personal record for ‘most drunk I’ve been at the cinema’), The Rundown (aka, Welcome To The Jungle, aka, Helldorado), a film in which he was handed the action star mantle by Arnold Schwarzenegger, in person, before Johnson continued onwards by smashing things up with a big bit of wood in Walking Tall.

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Be Cool, Doom, Southland Tales and Gridiron Gang all followed, allowing the former wrestler to show an equal adeptness at comedy, gory violence and drama. Then Disney appeared.

Now, I don’t know who at Disney decided to steal the big man away from us, but clearly they were completely oblivious to such cinematic delights as Mr Nanny, or Suburban Commando. More impressively, the man himself chose to either ignore or embrace the career missteps that had already been well trodden and lamented by Schwarzenegger, Stallone and even more recently, Vin Diesel.

So, after the last few years of appearances in multiple Disney TV shows and films, including Hannah Montana, Dwayne Johnson is finally back to causing GBH in Faster, before he and Vin Diesel have a long overdue punch up in Fast & Furious 5, now mere weeks away. And I couldn’t be happier.

In Faster‘s opening scenes we see Johnson’s character, Driver, covered in tattoos and scars, full of burning rage and so focused on a mission of revenge that, when he leaves the prison and no one is there to meet him, he simply runs to his destination. Proceedings then whip along at a brisk pace, with Faster having the common sense to keep the runtime to the ninety minute mark, as Driver systematically sets about executing anyone involved in his over familiar ‘heist gone bad’ set up.

What struck me most about the film is how belated it feels, with a similar tone to Diesel’s own A Man Apart, as if the film was a continuation of Johnson’s career straight after Walking Tall. Perhaps it’s an apology of sorts to those of us who’ve missed him kicking ass, but Faster left me wondering about the potential of other projects that never saw the light of day, while valuable career time was absorbed filming The Game Plan.

Either way, Faster makes no apologies for its simplistic attitude to the revenge genre, especially with an archetypal naming of the main characters, Driver, Cop and Killer. It suffers, though, from the same titular downfall of Drive Angry 3D, in that there are only two car chases in the film, one of which happens as part of a flashback and the other having nothing to do with a revenge killing.

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2011 appears to be the year in which films are consistently misrepresented, for better or worse. Drive Angry wasn’t angry, Unknown was nothing like Taken and now Faster appears to be an adrenalin- fuelled action movie, when it actually has more in common with likes of Death Proof, a revenge thriller.

Now, I hate Death Proof and enjoyed Faster, but expectations need to be adjusted, as Johnson only has one quick hand to hand scuffle and spends the rest of the time pointing a gun and brooding. So, there’s no face breaking here, if that’s what you’re looking for. The lack of action means that more time is spent trying to develop the characters, which is an admirable sentiment and does add a little extra to the movie. But there are so many fine actors squeezed in that no one seems to have enough time to shine.

The main female cast sees the lovely Maggie Grace wandering around in her underwear for a few minutes, Moon Bloodgood appears as an ex-wife, Dexter‘s awesome Jennifer Carpenter comes and go, while lead actress, Carla Gugino, fares better, but even her excellence seems fleeting.

Xander Berkeley was on screen just long enough for me to play the point and shout “You did it!” game, which I do every time he appears in anything. Tom Berenger, likewise. All are most welcome and liven up the film, but would’ve fared better split across two films.

Billy Bob Thornton and Oliver Jackson-Cohen, along with Johnson, get the majority of screen time, and they all throw themselves into every ridiculous scenario with gusto. Thornton looks appropriately jagged as a washed out junkie cop with mere days left to retirement, complete with attractive, younger ex-wife and an overweight son (I told you the film was unapologetic). Relative newcomer and Brit, Jackson-Cohen, tries to bring a touch of humanity to his rich, issue-ridden assassin, but can only do so much with the material he’s given, as his character, like most of the others, remains mostly unsympathetic throughout.

Faster works best when it focuses on the confrontations, as it seems less preoccupied with appearing to be cool, with some scenes showing a real visual flair and the potential for some much bigger and impressive set pieces than we actually get. Best of all, the action scenes are handled cleanly and visibly, which is an incredible luxury nowadays and one that deserves full recognition.

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The clumsy soundtrack does nothing to alleviate the problem, though, as what feels like an attempt at a Tarantinoesque use of Kenny Rogers’ Just Dropped In and The Stooges’ I Want to be Your Dog just recall clear memories of The Big Lebowski, Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels and The Transporter 3 (if you’re me), effectively ripping you out of the moments they’re used in.

Despite itself, there is still a lot to enjoy in Faster, mostly from the impressive and talented cast, in much the same way as Machete managed. However, both films have been unfairly delayed on their way to UK cinema screens after being released in America months earlier, which will, no doubt, impact on their box office returns. It’s an alarming re-emergence of the trend that I thought had well and truly been relegated to the past. So, if Hollywood could please take note: you’re only shooting yourself in the foot.

Regardless, at least Dwayne Johnson has finally returned to a grittier genre movie. Let’s just hope he gets to do more punching and driving in Fast Five and that Disney stays the hell away from him for the foreseeable future.

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3 out of 5