Driver. Cop. Killer. Those are the actual character names given to Dwayne Johnson, Billy Bob Thorton and Oliver Jackson-Cohen's respective roles in 'Faster,' a revenge film from 'Soul Food' director George Tillman Jr. that is rotten with placeholders. A cynic could say it's because Tony and Joe Gayton's script is a little half-baked, but the more likely explanation is that the two Gaytons thought themselves particularly clever for cutting to the chase of what people expect from an action flick about a recently liberated man (Johnson) who intends to be the judge, jury and executioner of the men who killed his bank-robbing brother.
They are not particularly clever, though they are however reliable when it does come to delivering what people expect. If you've seen even a few revenge films in your time, you'll know every beat of 'Faster' before it arrives on screen. You'll grasp concepts and key plot points well in advance of when Tillman Jr. decides to spell it out for everyone-- and spell it out he will, for 'Faster' boasts an almost commendable lack of subtlety throughout. And yet, even though this is a highly derivative thriller that telegraphs its moves, it's not quite a waste of time. There's a reason Dwayne Johnson has successfully transitioned from being a primetime wrestler to a legitimate movie star, and it's the same reason this otherwise forgettable film is tolerable: charisma.
There are few actors in the business who can sooth a broad array of audience members the same way Johnson can, but there's just something about his presence that makes it possible. Tillman Jr. is well aware of this, which is why 'Faster' is a surprisingly wholesome man-on-a-warpath flick. Sure, the film is rated R and Johnson's Driver is filled with bloodlust, but don't take those as indicators that a bloodbath is in store. The violence here is, relative to the genre niche, is actually quiet timid. There are no lingering looks at gnarly exit wounds or excessive shows of force. Instead, 'Faster' is all about Driver crossing a name off his bucket list and moving onto the next one as quickly as possible.
In theory, at least. In practice, 'Faster' opens with a pedal-to-the-floor mindset but doesn't take long before it eases on the brakes to deliver clunky and often redundant exposition explaining its various characters' backstories and personalities. It's as though the film isn't confident in its ability to keep everyone up to speed naturally, so it has to go out of its way to make everything as clear as possible. The regrettable part is that it does just fine without having to parrot back information or character quirks, which makes this behavior particularly grating. If your screenplay isn't going to bother to give its core characters proper names; if it's going to pretend like it's a lean, mean body built for quick and dirty revenge, isn't anything that gets in the way of that going to be counterintuitive? One would think so.
Yet even with all of the slow patches and billboards broadcasting plot from the side of the road, 'Faster' more or less works. On the more side, it's got a charismatic cast capable of overcoming all of the script issues (with particular kudos going to Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje for playing against the stoic, enigmatic persona he cultivated on 'Oz' and 'Lost') and an obvious set of good intentions. On the less side, however, Tillman Jr.'s film is creatively unambitious (even Clint Mansell's score is a wasted opportunity), a little too by-the-numbers (the only unique character is Jackson-Cohen's eccentric Killer, and even he takes a while to warm to) and shies away from making bold decisions that would satisfy those of us hoping for something new or refreshing in the revenge niche.