FASTER encompasses what I love about small-time, big-budget films. Movies backed by A-list celebrities and studios, yet completely undermined when it comes to the attention of the mainstream public. The heartbreaking, post-apocalyptic coming-of-age drama that was CARRIERS; the disquieting ugliness of the excellent thriller, PATHOLOGY; the surreal western chase that was SERAPHIM FALLS. . . All of these are pictures which seem to be either love it or hate it experience; quickly forced under the dusty rug in favor of the newest visual effects shindig akin to TRANSFORMERS. Somewhere in a celluloid limbo--one between theatrical and straight to "unrated" DVD--do these films exist. And that's most likely what I appreciate the most about these pieces; they're films with the same monetary headstart as their Hollywood brethren, but their execution is within a realm of honesty and dedicated filmmaking akin to an immediately shelved independent project. They might become lost in the torrent of mainstream fanaticism; they might be panned by critics because they aren't backed by stronger filmmakers or the pretentions of art-house development. Yet, these films pack an entertaining punch all their own, which belie the cold-shoulder offered them at the height of their initial release.
With what feels like yet another big-budget dismissal, FASTER tells the revenge-soaked story of a man deemed "Driver" (Dwayne Johnson) who seeks vengeance against those responsible for murdering his brother and sending him behind bars. Directly out of his stone-cold cell, Driver begins a near-unsympathetic assault on his enemies utilizing fist, knife and gun to bring about justice.
Director George Tillman Jr. might be most recognized for his projects like NOTORIOUS, MEN OF HONOR and SOUL FOOD, but FASTER feels like his most accomplished piece to date--especially on a visual front. With the combination of Tony and Joe Gayton's blunt, concise writing style, Tillman Jr. has crafted a dramatic action flick which is well-paced and appropriately bleak. Shootouts are rife with quick shots of environmental damage and sparking equipment; the hand-to-hand fisticuffs are brief, yet visceral; the jump cuts and shot placement, while groovy, are still sometimes too familiar to the genre. Amidst all of this however is well-established cinematography which balances the screen's color between drained cool colors and green-tinged yellows. It all makes for a far grittier, far more serious visual style. Having said that, I was a bit surprised--not so much disappointed, mind you--at the movie's actual lack of violence. While it does have its fair share of bloodshed, you'll be hard-pressed to find a bullet-ballet that lasts more than two minutes tops. Then again, needless carnage isn't what this narrative is about.
Much like MAN ON FIRE, THE SALTON SEA or DEAD MAN'S SHOES, FASTER isn't a revenge film steeped in the gratuitous violence of its protagonist, but a dramatic take on what one's relentless vision of justice is and can be. Driver isn't a psychopath butchering everyone in his way, he's a man solely hunting those responsible--no one else. He's the kind of antihero that understands a person's ability to change, yet doesn't believe it excuses them from the sins they've committed. Thus, several bouts--be it through verbiage, knife or gunplay--play out with a sense of mutualism. Both good and opposing forces understand the consequences about to befall them, and they accept it. Granted, this is nothing new for a film or any story for that matter, but the film goes about it with such fervor that it greatly assists in both the character development and emotional investment which viewers such as I place into it. Furthering the strength of the drama is the writer and director's use of subtlety. The majority of the movie isn't bogged down by verbal exposition, nor is it dead-set on describing why a certain character behaves a certain way. Instead, much of the delivery is delivered through certain imagery and facial expression. One character deemed "Killer" isn't given any backstory other than the pictures he dwells on and the scars lining his legs. From these two pieces of information placed against his constant workouts, it becomes clear as to why he's become the type of man that others would deem "Killer", and as to why the film is even titled "Faster". While none of the script's take on story and character development is earthshaking, it's nonetheless delivered in a simple, unostentatious way which forces the viewer to think of the situation instead of having it told to them.
As for the hero himself, Driver, you might recognize that I haven't referred to Dwayne Johnson as "The Rock" and that' because I think he's finally earned my Seal of "Stop Calling Me The Rock" Approval. While much of Johnson's recent attention has been to kid-friendly brain-fries like TOOTH FAIRY and the occasional action flick, he's definitely grown as an actor and it shows here. He's still typecast as a force of brute strength, but through his physical actions and limited dialogue-not to mention one scene in which he must gradually become more emotional--it's apparent that he's giving his damndest into making his character more than just a man with a gun; but a personality.
Reinforcing the weight of humanity all the more is the use of Clint Mansell's score. While Mr. Mansell is upon my top-tier of favorite composers, I'll be the first to concede that he does enjoy going on standby for the occasional film. REQUIEM FOR A DREAM and SMOKIN' ACES contain exceptional score work, yet dig deeper and you'll also find that he did the compositions for such failures as KNOCKAROUND GUYS, DOOM and the live-action version of BLOOD: THE LAST VAMPIRE. For FASTER, he finds a middle ground; one whose music isn't near as heart-wrenching as say, THE FOUNTAIN, but isn't near as yawn-inducing as his work on WIND CHILL. Because of this, certain portions feel blasé in the audio department whereas others feel downright moving. The track entitled "Redemption" is an especially great listen because of its ever-building simplicity. While it definitely wanes, the score nonetheless delivers during the moments in which the film needs it the most, providing an all the more affecting take on the inhumanity at hand.
As much as I appreciate FASTER, it does drop the ball a bit here and there. Certain line-delivery--whether it be from a videotaped version of Dwayne Johnson, or a villainous force--sometimes comes off as weak and forced. That, and the film's climax/denouement feels a bit too convenient and lighthearted given the raw and uncompromising streak which just preceded it. Also, it seems as though a decent portion of action has been left out of this final cut. The trailer depicted various chase sequences and vehicular mayhem that didn't seem to make it into the theatrical outing which I saw. As I mentioned above, I don't particularly fault the filmmakers for not incorporating more violence. . . But I don't think it would have hurt the entire experience either.
By FASTER's conclusion, I was pleasantly surprised with the piece of revenge cinema which had just graced my eyes. It may not take any great leaps to providing the genre with anything new, but with what it accomplishes--like its lead character--it does so with skill, precision and unstoppable dedication.