At long last, after wasting numerous years demeaning himself in trite family films, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has returned to R-rated territory for 2010’s Faster; the star’s first true action flick since Doom back in 2005. A rock-solid revenge film harkening back to 1970s action flicks, this is a vehemently R-rated feature which delivers on its promise of gritty, bloody violence and shootouts. However, Faster aspires to be more than a fun but ultimately unfulfilling slice of action entertainment – with a roster of intricate characters and a thematic density that’s rare in the genre, Faster is more thoughtful than anticipated. And indeed, viewers expecting a mindless action showcase may be somewhat disappointed.

Driver (Johnson) has just finished serving a decade-long prison sentence after participating in a botched bank robbery which resulted in the murder of his beloved brother. Armed with a revolver, an American muscle car and a list, Driver determinedly sets out to slaughter the men responsible for his brother’s killing. As bullets continue to fly, a junkie detective known as Cop (Thornton) and his colleague Cicero (Gugino) begin to investigate the killings. The situation becomes complicated, though, when professional assassin Killer (Jackson-Cohen) is hired to eliminate Driver; an assignment that he becomes determined to complete at all costs.

The trailers fooled you into thinking that Faster is a pure action fiesta, but the finished film is a different specimen. It does deliver bloodshed, sure, but the film primarily functions as a powerful mediation on the way that vengeance affects your soul. The film’s real strength is the fact that the characters are interesting and multifaceted; an asset truly surprising in a film like this. Granted, the characters are more or less archetypes in the service of a pretty clichéd story, but they feel like real human beings with lives, loves and histories which extend beyond the boundaries of the film’s proceedings. Indeed, Faster functions as a character study of the protagonist of each story thread: Driver, Cop, and Killer. However, with the film running at a brisk 95 minutes, it feels like more could have been done with the characters of Cop and Killer. In fact, they could have been the subject of their own movies. They’re adequately developed for the production’s intentions, granted, but a lengthier, more patient treatment of the premise could’ve yielded an overall superior, more complete movie.

From a stylistic standpoint, Faster is very much a throwback movie. Director George Tillman Jr. and cinematographer Michael Grady (who worked together on 2009’s Notorious) infused the film with a very gritty, cinematic look reminiscent of revenge flicks from the 1970s (think Death Wish or The French Connection), and they captured the action beats using old-school cinematic techniques reminiscent of the ’80s. From top to bottom, this is a well-crafted motion picture, and its dark, no-nonsense tone makes for a riveting experience. Despite the film mainly consisting of dialogue, the pace never grinds to a halt. Tillman also excels as a visual director; the three protagonists are introduced in visual terms within skilful, wordless montages. Driver’s introduction is especially effective, as so much is conveyed about the character without a great deal of dialogue at all.

It’s terrific to see Dwayne Johnson doing hardcore actioners like this instead of tosh like Tooth Fairy or The Game Plan. With his imposing physique, Johnson has an immense screen presence, and his performance here is tough, focused, intense and no-nonsense. Faster is an ideal transitional movie for the former wrestler, as it highlights the star’s physical capacity for action movies as well as his acting prowess. This was a complex role for Johnson, but he pulled it off – in spite of minimal dialogue, one can sense both the emotion he feels at any given moment and everything going through the character’s mind. This is especially evident during a poignant scene when he comes face-to-face with Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje; one of his intended victims. But Johnson is not the only strong performer here. Playing Cop, Billy Bob Thornton is every bit as sublime and nuanced as Johnson, and he afforded much-needed emotional depth to his role. Meanwhile, the charismatic Oliver Jackson-Cohen shows great promise as Killer.

Faster may have problems with its undernourished script and dumb tendencies (in the real world, Driver would’ve been apprehended long before the climax), but it remains an enthralling little action flick with a lot on its mind. It delivers enough bang for your buck in terms of gritty action and violence, but it also offers sincerity and powerful, provocative themes without becoming a pretentious arthouse bore.