Monday, March 28, 2011

Film Review with Robert Mann - Faster

Faster *** When he first made the transition from wrestling to acting with his bit part in The Mummy Returns back in 2001, Dwayne Johnson, then going by his wrestling name The Rock, appeared to have a very promising career as an action star ahead of him. While his first out and out starring role in The Scorpion King resulted in a box office hit, however, it quickly became apparent with subsequent leading roles that he might not be the successor to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s action star mantle that many made him out to be, something that even a cameo appearance by Schwarzenegger in Welcome to the Jungle, in a sort of passing of the torch, couldn’t change.

Despite finding moderate success with films such as Walking Tall and Be Cool, the commercial failure and/or underperformance of films like Doom, Southland Tales and even sports drama Gridiron Gang as well as the failure to come to fruition of action film Spy Hunter did little to help his ailing career as an action movie star and then he starred in a film called The Game Plan. One of those Disney family movies that sees a grown actor having to deal with some out of control kids, his first foray into the family comedy gave him one of the most financially successful films of his career and suddenly, just like that, Johnson found himself stuck in the family comedy genre. Aside from playing Agent 23 in spy comedy Get Smart, all of Johnson’s subsequent roles have seen him in family films like Race to Witch Mountain, Tooth Fairy and a vocal performance for animation Planet 51. Suffice to say, for a while it seemed like Johnson was doomed to spend the rest of his acting career making bad family movies. Following on from a brief but memorable appearance in last year’s action comedy The Other Guys, however, he is now making a big comeback in the action genre, appearing in two very fast (both in terms of content and name) and extremely car chase orientated actioners, one of them being April’s fifth instalment in the Fast & Furious franchise, Fast Five, and the other being revenge movie Faster

Brought to the screen by a somewhat unlikely director in the form of George Tillman Jr., the director of Soul Food, Men of Honour and Notorious, and made as a homage to the action films of the 1970s, Faster is as full on an actioner as Dwayne Johnson fans could probably hope for from his big comeback and, while Tillman might not seem like the obvious choice to direct, his films to date have been pretty well received and the same can also be said of some of the somewhat underrated films written by screenwriting brothers Tony and Joe Gayton. While this is their first collaboration together and the better credits are more attributable to the former of the brothers rather than the latter, between them they have written films like the D.J. Caruso directed crime drama The Salton Sea, Sandra Bullock crime thriller Murder by Numbers and Adam Sandler/Damon Wayans action comedy Bulletproof, all of which suggest that they have what it takes to do a good job in the writing department for Faster. While this film is supposed to be Dwayne Johnson’s big comeback to the action genre (or, given that this is the first action role to see him go by his actual name as opposed to his wrestling name, you could perhaps call it is his debut), however, the results from its release in the states last thanksgiving have been anything but big, the film seemingly continuing in his trend for commercially unsuccessful action movies. 

So box office success seems to have eluded him yet again and it seems unlikely that the UK results will be any better but does Faster at least prove to be a truly worthy comeback for Johnson, giving him the kind of action role he really should be playing, or does it actually prove deserving of the lacklustre box office results it has displayed thus far? Ten years is a long time. Ten years in prison with nothing to do but plan your revenge is even longer, and that's precisely what Driver (Dwayne Johnson) has had. After his brother Gary (Matt Gerald) was brutally executed when they were sold out following a bank job, Driver has been committed to making the murderers pay, having hired Roy Grone (Mike Epps), a private investigator on the outside, to track them all down, while he bides his time inside prison. As soon as he’s release he immediately gets in his 1970s Chevelle LS5 SS recreation car and begins hunting down those on his list of culprits, one by one. First, there’s a telemarketer (Courtney Gains), then there’s a sex offending old guy (John Cirigliano), followed by club bouncer Baphomet (Lester Spreight), the one who slit Gary’s throat, and then there’s reformed Evangelist (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) and the final one, the one who set them up in the first place, is a mystery. 

Driver wastes no time in brutally taking out his brother’s murderers but it isn’t long before the hunter has become the hunted with Driver being pursued by not one but two men, firstly Killer (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), an adrenaline junkie assassin who works for just one dollar, and secondly veteran police officer Cop (Billy Bob Thornton). Both have their own issues to contend with too – Killer is facing a bit of a crisis in his life, no long feeling fulfilled by the rush of the kill and finding himself torn between his work and his new wife Lily (Maggie Grace), while the drug addled Cop, just ten days away from retirement and partnered with Cicero (Carla Gugino), a detective who will stop at nothing to get to the truth, is struggling to save his marriage to former drug addict turned mother of his son Marina (Moon Bloodgood). As Driver nears the end of his list, it becomes a frenetic race to the finish, but does Driver really have all the details and could there be more to his brother's murder than meets the eye? A revenge actioner in the style of 1970s action movies with the violence being every bit as brutal and bloody at that implies – the first thing Driver does upon getting out of prison is get into his car drive to his first victim’s office and shoot him right in the head – Faster is a well made and entertaining action film, the action being quite thrilling and the violence very stylised, although clearly not for the squeamish, a number of car chases and hand to hand fight scenes having a very raw and edgy feel in both the way they are executed and the way they are shot. The camerawork is generally decent with atypical angles giving a different perspective on the action even if the cinematography is occasionally a bit too dark. 

The writing is also better than you might expect, the plot not being the most in depth but for what the film is having quite a lot of detail, a flashback to the day of the bank robbery and a scene where Cop and Cicero watch a videotape of Gary’s murder revealing why Driver went to prison and why he is out for revenge – prior to these scenes there is no indication as to either – and a surprising amount of characterisation being provided for all three main characters – all of whom, in keeping with the film’s homaging of 70s action movies, have no names, simply being known by the roles they serve in the story, their ‘names’ appearing as on screen text and them never referring to each other by name – Driver being developed from just a bad guy who is killing a load of people into a more sympathetic character, while Cop goes somewhat in the other direction as his drug addiction drives him down a very dark path while continually seeming like a very human character and Killer is also a more complicated character than he seems, his life crisis genuinely making him seem like more than the run of the mill hitman. There is also a shocking twist in the plot towards the end that serves as something of a game changer. 

The cast is also quite impressive for such a small scale production. Dwayne Johnson nails the tough and vengeful look and this look, combined with his rippling physique, really makes it easy to buy him as someone who has spent ten years in prison and has been planning his revenge for all that time. Here he is a man of few words, his character not speaking all that much and, while it seems like he is not exactly playing a nice guy for the most part – there again most of the people he is after are a hell of a lot worse – he really does develop into someone far more empathetic as the film progresses, thanks to both good character development courtesy of the writers and Johnson’s acting skills that allow us to buy that his character really isn’t a bad guy deep down. It’s great to see Johnson back where he belongs – in action movies, and he of course also fares very well in the numerous action sequences. As a Bad Lieutenant style cop, Billy Bob Thornton is no Nicolas Cage, not really making enough of the fact that his character is a drug addict, but he manages to keep us guessing and performs very ably as a maverick style cop. 

Oliver Jackson-Cohen’s performance meanwhile is a little over the top considering the generally gritty real world style of the film but mostly it works, the character very much seeming like the adrenaline junkie type. The other performers don’t get as much to work with but the likes of Carla Gugino, Moon Bloodgood and Maggie Grace provide three very strong and very different female performances while the killers that Driver is after generally seem well cast, even if it does seem almost as if Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje is just rehashing his performance as Mr. Eko from TV show Lost. So, overall, Faster may not be anything special as an action movie but as a throwback to the action movies of the 1970s is proves very enjoyable in a Friday night movie kind of way. Throw in an effortlessly cool soundtrack and you have a film that is a solid return to the action genre for Dwayne Johnson and definitely worth the price of a cinema ticket. 

Review by Robert Mann BA (Hons)

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