Dwayne Johnson couldn't make a great action movie if his career depended on it. Luckily, the former pro-wrestler's career hasn't depended on it for years.
After fleeing Vince McMahon's wrestling gulag in the mid-2000s, Johnson embarked on a short but rather unsuccessful campaign of forgettable action films ("Walking Tall," "Doom"). Then he realized something: He's funny. Behind all those layers of brawn is an actor with great comic timing and the charming ability to make fun of himself. He stole scenes from John Travolta as a gay bodyguard in "Be Cool." He out-Steve Carelled Steve Carell in "Get Smart." And he's committed himself to Disney on numerous occasions, most recently as the only good thing in "The Tooth Fairy."
Apparently, the comedy sabbatical is over. In "Faster" Johnson trades in his congenial smile for a cold grimace. And he's bulked up -- to the point that his neck muscles appear to have muscles.
All the better for a revenge saga that can be described simply as: They killed his brother, now he's going to kill them. "Faster" suggests an homage to the pulpy exploitation films of the 1970s. Director George Tillman ("Notorious") makes no reservations about this pursuit. But unlike Robert Rodriguez's "Machete," which stirred its bloodbath with bits of humor, "Faster" is dead serious. Ten years removed from a botched robbery in which his brother was murdered -- and he was shot in the head -- Johnson is out of prison and ready for payback. Tillman introduces his characters simply as action archetypes. Johnson is labeled "Driver" as he begins his warpath from behind the wheel of a snarling Chevy Chevelle. A shaggier-than-usual Billy Bob Thornton is "Cop," a beleaguered detective in hot pursuit. Then there's a hired assassin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) sent to stop Driver. He's called "Killer." Subtlety was blown out of the frame like brain fragments when "Faster" was conceived. The inclusion of the assassin -- a millionaire who kills for sport -- is a strange one. He seems to have been dropped in from another movie, with subplots of his own (in between fight scenes, he marries his girlfriend).
Johnson is as comfortable as ever here. He has a physicality and charisma that lend themselves naturally to "Faster's" frantic, stylized action. But the revenge material is nothing we haven't seen before. Johnson's movies work best when he's playing his funny opposite. Comedy is hard. Badass is not. He doesn't necessarily need to be the Tooth Fairy, but playing a juiced-up superhero who "refused to die" seems to always result in the same thing for him. It's simply adequate.