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In the beginning of 2003's The Rundown, viewers were treated to what many fans saw as a passing of the action hero torch, as Arnold Schwarzenegger quipped, “Have fun!” to The Rock, in a blink-and-you-missed-it scene. It was considered as Ah-nuld’s stamp of approval and assurance to the audience that there is another who would step in as the next ripped action star.

Well, The Rock did have fun in that action comedy and in a couple other action flicks but then he branched out to Disney kiddie-fare, much to the surprise and disappointment of those who craved old school action. They wanted him to be their big-screen hero, and now with Faster, those action junkies may get their fix.

Or maybe not….it depends on whether or not you want brains behind your chiseled and tattooed brawn. This movie is high on protein and lean muscle mass and low on grey matter. But really, it doesn’t matter. It’s a one-note revenge flick with a handful of stereotypes of society’s lowest lowlifes, a cartoonish hitman and an awesome black Chevy Cevelle that owns every frame its in.

Wasting no time (it is called Faster), director George Tillman (Notorious and Men of Honor) gives us Dwayne Johnson pacing a cage like a lion ready to pounce. The cage is a California jail cell where Johnson’s silent but strong character has spent the last ten years building up a vendetta for all those who’ve wronged him.

He was the driver in a bank hit that went wrong, resulting in the brutal murder of his brother right in front of him. Upon his release, the Warden (Tom Berenger) asks him if he has any questions, and the first line he utters, “Where’s the exit?” is indicative of this raging hulk’s one-track mind. Now a free man, his boy Roy (Mike Epps) left him a sweet set of wheels and a handy to-do list with the names and addresses of every man involved in that fateful moment from his past.

The goal is simple: track these cretins and put them down. This Driver knows nothing about stealth or silencers. He is sheer blunt trauma, leaving his guns to do the talking.

Once behind the wheel, brothers and screenwriters Tony Gayton and Joe Gayton, feel the need to spell the players out for us as we see the words “Driver” across the screen. We’re also told that a tired and bored-looking Billy Bob Thornton is ”Cop”, a disgraced and drug-addicted detective who sleazes his way onto Det. Cicero’s (Carla Gugino, also starred with Johnson in Race to Witch Mountain and here is left to spout exposition) pursuit of Driver. I can accept what they’re going for here by breaking down the characters to what they do, along with the Grindhouse-style quick cuts and over-saturated lenses.

But it didnt take long for them to baffle, annoy and frustrate me with the addition of ”Killer” a hitman with a silly Euro accent played by Oliver Jackson Cohen. He’s a self-made, silicon start-up millionaire whose hones his body and mind over the years and now spends his days “beating yoga”, looking at pictures of himself and accepting random hits (for a dollar) just to rescue him from boredom. If all that wasn’t enough, he also has to be a borderline psycho who really needs his meds to keep him acting like a normal Bruce Wayne/Richie Rich….although he is described by one witness as ”beautiful”.

But wait, there’s more….he has a trophy, er, girlfriend simply named Lily (played by Lost alum, Maggie Grace) because she has no occupation. Grace is relegated to lounging around in bed, walking around in a bikini and prepping her man’s many weapons. Oh wait, she does get to wear a wedding dress as she and Killer work in a quickie honeymoon playing target practice in the desert, before he returns to chasing Driver.

These two characters are such a ridiculous waste of screen time (not the actors, mind you), it’s a shame I wasted a couple of paragraphs on them. It seems they’re even a distraction in a review!

It’s a shame those two take screen time away from Johnson, because he is good here. He’s a man of few words here, relying on body language and emotive expressions to capture the rage and pain this man is dealing with. If he’s not speeding in his Chevy, then he’s barreling down hallways shoulders first, like an unstoppable beast. He may easily dispense with the men on his list, but he also shows a glimmer of humanity as we see him struggle with the job at hand right before each deadly dead. Johnson isn’t playing a hero we should root for -- he knows it and we know it and yet we both know there’s no turning back.

His need to get rid of scum is understandable and we also know that it’s a dark road he’s driving on, one that will drown his soul in darkness. One man on the list, now reformed and an Evangelist (another Lost alum, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) impacting his flock for the good, tries to help Driver see the light which has long diminished. This struggle between light and darkness could’ve been examined in more detail, delivering a more compelling storyline. Since this is really just a Kill Bill riff-off, all that’s needed is a point A to point B body count.

At one time, director Phil Joanou (who directed Johnson in 2006's Gridiron Gang) was attached to direct, but based on what there is to work with here, I don’t know what he would’ve done differently than Tillman Jr.

He serves an appropriately gritty and hyperventilating action film that wastes no time with irony. Unfortunately, the intensity of it all is undone by unconvincing drama (brief supporting characters played by Moon Bloodgood and Jennifer Carpenter) and forced religious elements which bog down the film as much as Killer and Lily. It’s as if the filmmakers felt that a fast and furious Dwayne ”The Rock” Johnson wasn’t enough for moviegoers.

I like Johnson. He has proven acting chops and has made some wise decisions by showing his range over the years. But let’s face it, he’s not gonna look like this forever, so why can’t we see him in more action films where he takes Schwarzenegger’s advice? All fans of Johnson really want out of a movie like this is to see him as a force to reckon with. There’s no need to load his already bulky frame with dead weight to slow him down. Remember? It’s called Faster.

David J. Fowlie

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