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Stuck in Neutral

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars.

Action fans have been waiting seven years for Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson to deliver on the promise as a next-gen action hero in The Rundown. Johnson’s subsequent career has whipsawed between mediocre to sub-par action films (e.g., Doom, the Walking Tall remake) and family-oriented films (The Tooth Fairy, The Game Plan), with the occasional stop along the way for an idiosyncratic supporting turn (Be Cool, Southland Tales). Unfortunately, Faster, a revenge-oriented doesn’t deliver (far from it, actually).

As Faster opens, Johnson’s character, identified only as “Driver,” paces inside a dramatically underlit jail cell in a maximum-security prison. He’s spent every moment of his ten-year sentence planning to avenge his brother’s (Matt Gerald) murder at the hands of a rival crew. Minutes after a faux-profound speech (something about “dark places”) by the prison warden (Tom Berenger, in the first of several superfluous cameos), he runs all the way to a junkyard where he finds a ’71 Chevy Chevelle in mint condition. Inside the Chevelle, a folder containing a photo, a name, and an address (additional photos, names, and addresses come later), and a revolver.

Johnson’s character drives to an anonymous business office in downtown Bakersfield, walks in casually, and shoots an unarmed office worker in the head, the first of several revenge killings. The media and police, led by Detective Cicero (Carla Gugino) and a near-retirement cop with a drug problem identified only as “Cop” (Billy Bob Thornton), sense a crime spree in process.

Cop isn’t the only one after Driver, though. A mystery antagonist hires an egocentric, eccentric contract Killer (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), to terminate Driver before he discovers the identity of the mystery antagonist. Along the way, Driver struggles with his violent behavior, in part fueled by a radio-based Christian evangelist who preaches about forgiveness and redemption.

Faster’s set-up promises a climactic three-way standoff Sergio Leone-style between Driver, Cop, and Killer, but doesn’t deliver. The absence of proper names for the three central characters offers the first clue that director George Tillman, Jr. (Notorious, Man of Honor, Soul Food) and screenwriters Tony and Joe Gayton are riffing on Leone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, but the similarities are, at best superficial and, at worst, tangential to a film that should have kept its star front-and-center and the tortured navel-gazing to a minimum.

Minus the Killer’s presence and the faux-religiosity, Faster could have been an effective, efficient action film, albeit one with the usual clichés and predictably plot turns.