SNITCH (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Ric Roman Waugh, 2013
Snitch isn’t the movie you first think it’s going to be: which is probably a big, rough, clichéd, somewhat silly action movie, tailor made for star Dwayne (once “The Rock”) Johnson. Johnson has made some clichéd action pictures (The Scorpion King) and some silly movies in his day — The Tooth Fairy and Journey 2: The Mysterious Island come to mind. But, in Snitch, he and the moviemakers try to do something more sensible and honestly dramatic: a film with ideas and emotions as well as muscles and carnage.
They’re not completely successful. But it’s still a better movie than you’d expect — better written, better filmed, better acted (by Johnson and the rest of an unusually strong cast). Snitch, allegedly “based on a true story” — which is an exaggeration — is about a relatively ordinary American guy named John Matthews (Johnson), a freight truck company owner, whose son Jason (Rafi Gavron) is arrested for drug possession and intent to distribute (of a box of Ecstasy), and faces a 10 year jail sentence,
That unusually harsh punishment for a first time offender is thanks to the minimum sentences mandated by the War on Drugs laws, and the only way Jason can get a better deal is if he helps entrap somebody else (which is exactly what happened to him in the Ecstasy case). Jason however is no dealer; the only drug contact he has is the guy (the actual dealer) who set him up — and the prosecutor on his case (Susan Sarandon as Atty. Joanne Meighan) is pretty unsympathetic and harsh herself. She’s also involved in a heavy political campaign and wants whatever good press she can get. (“The liberals think I’m a bitch,” she explains. From what we see here, the liberals are right.)
And so John — who feels guilty because he remarried, and spends far more time with his new family, than with Jason and his mother (Melina Kanakaredes) — offers to help uncover some drug dealers himself, despite the fact that he‘s as much a stranger to this dark world as his son. Meighan, up for election and anxious for good publicity, gives him a shot, and, with the aid of one of his workers, an ex-con named Daniel James (played by Jon Bernthal) he wangles an intro to a vicious local dealer named Malik (Michael Kenneth Williams). Matthews offers his trucks as transport, and that suggestion involves him in smuggling cocaine (with the federal prosecutor’s knowledge and leads this “ordinary guy” John to Malik’s boss Juan Carlos Pintera a.k.a. “El Topo’ (Benjamin Bratt) and to a job transporting a fortune in drug money across the Mexican border as well.
John, we soon realize, is in way over his head, as is James, whom John hasn‘t informed of his police deal and informant (or snitch) status. Both John and the prosecutors — who include Sarandon as the hard-as-nails Meighan and Barry Pepper in a solid turn as the goateed vet agent Cooper — are working in a very gray moral zone. Not because they’re double-crossing the drug cartel, which is good riddance, but because the prosecutors are leading John into a situation that could almost certainly get him killed (and, at first, not telling him), and John is leading Daniel into violating his probation and endangering his family and freedom, something Daniel clearly didn’t want to do — at first. That moral question is what makes Snitch more interesting than it first appears to be.
Most movies like Snitch simply exist to have four or five big action scenes and a couple of scenes where the heroes glower and the villains chew the scenery. Snitch has action scenes — director-writer Ric Roman Waugh was a stunt man and stunt director for years, just like Hal Needham (Smokey and the Bandit). But there are only a few of them, only one that’s somewhat over the top (the last 16-wheeler chase) and anyway, these scenes don’t overwhelm the movie. Instead, what keeps you watching are the characters and the suspense whipped up by the sight of John and Daniel (and their families) getting into worse and worse danger. It’s a peril that we’re not sure that either of them can handle — as we would be fairly certain in the usual action movie.
In the usual crime thriller (which often involves drugs), the hero can handle everybody and we never doubt it from the moment we read the credits. Here we’re not so sure that Johnson can get out of this alive or at least uninjured. In addition, we probably don’t like Meighan (at least I didn’t, and I usually love Susan Sarandon) and we’re not sure of Cooper. John has a credible and sympathetic motivation: his love for his son and the guilt he feels about neglecting him. And suspense is also generated by Jason’s fear that he’ll be destroyed by prison life, and John‘s that he‘ll be found out.
The script for Snitch was co-written by Justin Haythe, who also adapted Richard Yates’ modern classic novel “Revolutionary Road” for director Sam Mendes. And it‘s not bad at all. The dialogue is much better than usual for this kind of movie, and Johnson holds his own with an unusually strong cast. The director Waugh has a flotilla of stunt credits and some directorial ones, but he seems more interested in serious moviemaking than Needham was — entertaining as a few of Needham’s chase comedies may have been.
Waugh handles the action well, as you’d expect, but he’s just as good with most of the non-action scenes. There’s not a bad performance in the movie, and several of the actors — especially Williams, Bernthal and Pepper — are exceptional. I thought the movie’s color and framing sometimes looked too rough and ugly. But at least the cinematographer (Dana Gonzales) gives Snitch a style: neo-noir crossed with mock-doc.
As for The Artist Formerly Known as The Rock, he’s unusually good here at projecting vulnerability and a good-guy likeability, qualities he didn’t necessarily need in his earlier action movies, but which were the only saving graces of comedy dreck like The Tooth Fairy — and which could now lead him to better roles and better movies. On the strength of Snitch, he deserves them. At least he doesn’t deserve another Tooth Fairy.