“Faster,” the new hard-R-rated action film starring Dwayne Johnson, is far from perfect. It has an entire subplot that could be excised from the film, and that removal would probably be for the good. It is clearly made on the cheap, without a single pixel of CGI visible in its mayhem, relying instead on muscle and metal and sweat. The plot is unadorned, starting with a bloody bang and going from there in a straight, unbending line with only a few minor, easily predicted twists along its path.
And yet, there is something to admire: a certain nobility of ignoble purpose; its willingness to explore territories of revenge and regret and repentance that few action films even hint at; the way it revolves around characters who are not superheroes or spies or mythic beings being set up to launch a franchise but instead simply mortals put in motion to tell a single story. Much like the ’66 Chevelle that its lead character, called only Driver, uses to speed through the sun-burnt sprawl of California and Nevada, “Faster” feels like an artifact from another, simpler time, but it still has plenty of power when the people behind the wheel hit the gas.
Written by Joe and Tony Gayton, the movie starts with the ballistic bullet-path simplicity of “Point Blank,” as Johnson is released from a 10-year prison stint. Leaving the prison, he runs to a local car lot, finds his Chevelle waiting with a gun and a stack of papers in the front seat, drives to the closest address on a list in the papers, walks in to a small business … and shoots a man dead. No hesitation, no warning, not a word spoken. And then on to the next one.
“Faster” is not simply “Dwayne Johnson Shoots People in the Head,” though — and even if it were, in an age of video-game and comic-book adaptations, doesn’t something that primal and simple sound immensely appealing? Instead, as the ragged, haggard character Cop (Billy Bob Thornton) and smooth, sociopathic Killer (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) track Driver’s mission from what seem like either ends of the law, Driver’s mission to avenge his murdered brother — killed in the wake of a bank heist that got hijacked — becomes as much of a moral journey as a geographic one. Much as the under-seen and under-appreciated “Way of the Gun” did, “Faster” delivers pure excitement, to be sure — but it also uses those heart-pounding sequences as a window into the souls of its characters. There are three scenes in “Faster” that have more emotional power and moral complexity than many of this year’s would-be Oscar contenders.
Director George Tillman Jr. (“Men of Honor,” “Notorious”) keeps “Faster” on track — although I’m still trying to figure out what, if any, actual purpose Jackson-Cohen’s OCD hit man serves; his scenes, and his subplot with Maggie Grace as a confusingly complicit true love, serve minimal purpose. Thornton is excellent: Cop is bedraggled and beaten, 10 days from retirement, and, yes, it is a cliché role for an actor of Thornton’s caliber, until the film makes it clear why an actor of his caliber was required. Jennifer Carpenter (“Dexter”) has one scene, brief and brisk and brutal, that put the hairs on the back of my neck to stirring with its haunting power. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje gets a scene with Johnson that plays out with the bleak Biblical power of a Johnny Cash song. And Johnson, both unstoppable force and immovable object, shows a richer, darker side than any of his prior action films have allowed him to demonstrate, while still filling the film’s every moment with poisoned purpose and murderous magnetism.
In an age where so many action films strive for the kind of “perfection” that results in multipicture deals and tie-in products and safe, steady returns on investment, a film as brutally simple and yet unexpectedly complex as “Faster” becomes a pleasure in and of itself, and a thing to be cherished. Handmade, cheaply made and simply made, the rough edges of “Faster” still cut cleanly, and I’ll take that over the bland, blunt, committee-crafted excesses that bigger companies and bigger budgets offer us. I can’t tell you that “Faster” will last long in theaters, but it’s already echoing in my head and heart with a combined sense of power and purpose as welcome as it is unexpected.