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**1/2

Reviewed by: David Graham

Dwayne Johnson returns from kid-flick purgatory looking more like The Rock than he has for a while, in a vehicle for his 'talents' that - tragically given the title - never gets out of first gear. Notorious director George Tillman Jr styles his revenge opus as a Seventies throwback in the broadest sense possible, but bizarrely decides to forgo the action he seems to promise in favour of a three-pronged character study. What at first looks like a rip-roaring retro-flavoured take on Crank soon gets sidetracked into redemption dramatics, a brave metamorphosis but perhaps a foolish one.

Johnson stars as 'Driver', fresh out of jail with a fearsome reputation and payback in mind. Having been banged up after a robbery double-cross that got his brother killed and himself mortally wounded, he sets out on the road with a kill-list of those who done him wrong and a blood-thirst that knows no bounds. Hot on his tail are Billy Bob Thornton's Bad Lieutenant-esque 'Cop' and Oliver Jackson-Cohen's zen-fueled rich-kid 'Killer', each with their own cross to bear. As the three come in and out of contact with each other, they find their motivations and faith in their actions tested, leading to a Heat-styled meeting of minds that could go any way for each of them.

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Johnson isn't exactly renowned for his acting prowess but he does manage to bring a certain degree of steely conviction to his role, and as usual he is a formidable screen presence with charisma to burn. Just as well, as for much of the film he's pretty much monosyllabic, doling out vicious vengeance in scenes that curiously avoid build-up or tension to deliver straight, brutal dispatches of his foes. Even a knife-fight in a strip-club toilet is over in a flash; these events are refreshingly blunt but not quite shocking enough to stir up any interesting questioning of morality in the viewer, and they're not elaborate enough as action set-pieces either.

As the story takes us deeper into Johnson's past, Tillman Jr tries to invest proceedings with some emotional weight, and very nearly succeeds in places. Johnson is earnest enough in these scenes to overcome their intrinsic clunkiness, and those around him really sell their own personal traumas and guilts in the aftermath of his wrongdoing. Jennifer Carpenter impresses in a brief role that momentarily gives the story some real dramatic thrust, and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje brings resigned dignity to his born-again preacher, just about making Johnson's turnaround towards redemption plausible.

Thornton manages to make his deadbeat detective appealing despite his obvious flaws, but he is often left with too little to do. As his put-upon wife, Moon Bloodgood makes a powerful appearance that nicely fleshes out his issues, but scenes where he plays off Carla Gugino's disapproving but reluctantly admiring partner are laced with woeful dialogue that undermines both actors' best efforts. Similarly, Jackson-Cohen's character - introduced indulging in some ridiculous if impressive yoga positions - is given layers that the script can't do justice, the explanation of his back-story and his twisted relationship with Maggie Grace coming off as both ludicrous and trite. Grace redeems herself towards the end with some effective emoting when her character shifts away from taking vicarious pleasure in her partner's lethal profession, but it's too little too late for the audience to care.

Tillman's film is ultimately a curious hybrid that admirably tries to transcend its genre trappings but sadly falls short of its noble intentions. It's luminously shot, with a slick style that avoids unnecessary posturing and gimmicky editing, apart from an occasional over-use of slo-mo (when will directors learn?). He tries hard to bring depth to some intriguing characters, but an uninspired script and frequent reliance on cliche ultimately makes the film less than the sum of its parts. It's not frenetic enough to appease action fanatics, or consistently thoughtful enough to work as a straightforward drama, but it's just about worth seeing for the committed performances from some appealing players and its attempt to take a road less travelled.

Reviewed on: 03 Apr 2011
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An ex-con aims to avenge his brother's death while avoiding a hitman and the lawman determined to bring him in.
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Director: George Tillman Jr

Writer: Tony Gayton, Joe Gayton

Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Billy Bob Thornton, Maggie Grace, Carla Gugino

Year: 2010

Runtime: 98 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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