Silver Screen: Faster **1/2

Silver Screen: Faster  **1/2
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Billy Bob Thornton appears in two kinds of movies. He stars in quirky, character-drive indie picture
Bryan Miller

Billy Bob Thornton appears in two kinds of movies. He stars in quirky, character-drive indie pictures that let him showcase his wide-ranging talent as both a comedian and a master of understated dramatic performances. He alternates those with crappy studio genre flicks that keep his profile high and, presumably, his bank account full-- hence the segue from The Apostle to Primary Colors to Homegrown to Armageddon to A Simple Plan.

Even in the cash-ins, though, Thornton brings his intensity and weird charisma, so it's no surprise that he's the best thing about the would-be-gritty action flick Faster, which stars former pro wrestler Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson as an ex-con hellbent for revenge.

Faster is a slick studio release that yearns to be a rough-edged seventies B-movie modernization of Sergio Leone's The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. On this point, director George Tillman Jr. (Notorious, Soul Food) is less than subtle. If you don't pick up on the allusion when each of the main characters is introduced by a freeze-frame with their one-word moniker flashed in a title card (Johnson is Driver, Thornton is Cop, and newcomer Oliver-Jackson Cohen is Killer), then you should get the hint when one of the principles' cell phone ringtone turns out to be Ennio Morricone's classic theme music. If the homage is a bit clunky, though, it's at least a welcome twist on a shoot 'em up movie that turns out to have slightly more going for it than it might seem.

Johnson's Driver has one thing on his mind when he's released from jail. The second he's set free, he runs to a junkyard, hops into a waiting muscle car, drives straight to an office building, and puts a bullet through the head of one of the employees. He's barely out a couple of hours before the authorities are back on his trail.

It doesn't take long for lead detective Cicero (Carla Gugino) to determine that Driver has some specific agenda, but she can't discern the pattern. She gets some help from Thornton's Cop, a junkie policeman trying to stay both high and under the radar in his final weeks on the force. He helps identify the shooter as a getaway driver on a bank robbery that went south when the crew was betrayed; our man was shot and left for dead next to his partner in crime, his brother, who is left for dead and stays dead. Driver spends the next decade in jail plotting his revenge.

Meanwhile, Killer, a former software developer turned thrill-seeking millionaire assassin, is hired to track down Driver and put an end to his rampage. Killer's mystery employer is presumably the same person who set up Driver's crew on the initial bank robbery. The mastermind's identity is one of the movie's big secrets, but anyone who's been paying attention should be able to figure it out halfway through.

Still, Faster is passably entertaining, with ever-so-slightly loftier ambitions than its muscles 'n' guns promotional campaign would suggest. Driver's bloody quest is eventually called into question, and our hulking antihero is ultimately forced to question the nature of revenge, even if the movie gets to indulge in plenty of badassery and gory retribution en route to its moralism.

Tillman and writers Joe and Tony Gayton (who penned the dull Murder by Numbers, but also the nifty southwestern neo-noir The Salton Sea) clearly intend that moralism to be complicated, although they don't really have the stomach for it. Cold-blooded killer though he may be, Driver's past crimes are excused with the schmaltziest explanations (he's not really such a bad guy!), providing too-easy justification for his murder spree. So too is Thornton's thorny detective collapsed, ultimately, into something more like a cartoon character, to say nothing of Cohen's Killer, who seems pulled out of another, much sillier action movie entirely.

Faster is reminiscent of Christopher McQuarrie's black-humored Sam Peckinpah tribute The Way of the Gun. McQuarrie channeled Peckinpah far better than Tillman can conjure up the spirit of Leone, but even if it's not exactly good, Faster is neither bad nor ugly.