The most surprising thing about Ric Roman Waugh, the co-writer/director of “Snitch,” having started his career as a stuntman from a family of stuntmen is that “Snitch” is, for the most part, a drama and not the action movie that the poster and the trailers would want to make you believe it is. That’s not really a problem with the film so much as it is a case of misleading marketing. Taken on its own merits, “Snitch” is a solid, small-scale story about what a father is willing to do to help correct an injustice he sees landing on his teenage son after he makes an inexcusably stupid mistake.
Participant Media is one of the production partners on the film, and if you know them as a company, you know that their mandate is making movies that deal in some way with social issues, and I was surprised to see that this is really a movie about how flawed the mandatory minimum sentencing system is in the war on drugs. At the start of the film, Jason Collins (Rafi Gavron) is at home, and a college friend tells him that there’s a package coming that he’ll need to sign for, a package he’ll pick up as soon as he gets home from school. It’s a huge shipment of Ecstasy tablets, and when it arrives, he not only signs for it, but he opens it, and right away, the DEA descends on the house. They were ready for him to accept ownership of the package, and they treat Jason as a major drug dealer. Thanks to the amount they caught him with, they’ve got him on the hook for at least ten years, and they can go as high as thirty years if they choose to. The US Prosecutor on the case is the politically ambitious Joanne Keeghan (Susan Sarandon), and she seems more than happy to throw the book at this dumb kid.
His dad, John Matthews (Dwayne Johnson), is determined not to let that happen. The owner of a construction company, John divorced Jason’s mother when he was still young, and Jason has grown up angry at his father, angry about everything, and they rarely, if ever, talk. When Jason is arrested, though, John tries to sort things out. He’s told that if Jason is willing to set someone else up for arrest with a half-kilo or more of a controlled substance, they will reduce his sentence. The problem is that Jason can’t imagine setting anyone else up, since he knows that he was set up. He had no intention of selling anything, and the only reason he got popped is because his friend was caught at the FexEx place, and he agreed to hand Jason over to keep himself out of trouble.
John realizes he’s going to have to do something else, and he makes a deal with Keeghan: if he can figure out a way to help make a major weight felony arrest, then she’ll knock Jason’s sentence down to a year. She puts John together with undercover narcotics officer Cooper (Barry Pepper) and John goes to work. Since he’s about as straight-laced as a person can be, there are some false starts as he makes some obvious and completely ineffective attempts. Fans of the big action movie of Dwayne Johnson might be surprised to see how human-scale he is here. He gets beaten down pretty savagely his first night on the streets, and there’s no attempt to just jump right in, fists swinging.
John figures out that one of his employees, a new guy named Daniel James (Jon Bernthal), was convicted twice of possession with intent to distribute, and he approaches him about making an introduction to someone who can bring him into the world of trafficking. John’s pitch is that the construction business is floundering and he’s willing to use his trucks to smuggle product. The desperation ends up feeling completely honest, and although Daniel is doing his best to build a new life for his wife and his young son, he agrees to do this one last thing for $20,000.
While the film certainly paints the world of drug sales at both the local (Michael Kenneth Williams is pretty much straight-up Omar in his role here, which should thrill fans of “The Wire”) and the cartel (Benjamin Bratt is all oily charm as “El Topo,” the biggest of the big fish) level as a very real poison, the law enforcement side of things isn’t treated much better. Sarandon is shown to be an opportunist who is willing to let anyone step into harm’s way as long as it benefits her with the voters. And while I get a sense that there is genuine moral indignation behind the film, I don’t think the script (co-written by Justin Haythe) ever really builds a sense of momentum or urgency, despite what would seem to be an idea set-up for creating both things.
“Snitch” is not a bad film. There are nice grace notes to the driven, singularly-focused performance that Dwayne Johnson gives, and I remain convinced more than ever than he is the perfect model for the 21st Century action hero. The fact that he looks like a normal person when you dress him in normal clothes and I can accept him as a guy who could own a construction business gives him an advantage that guys like Arnold and Sly never really had. Johnson’s performance almost manages to make John seem like a genuine character, because he suggests more of an inner life than the script actually earns. The supporting cast all tries hard as well, but time and time again, the script seems to stall out in second gear instead of ever really heating up.
There’s literally almost no action until the last fifteen minutes of the film, and at that point, it’s still handled in a way that will probably frustrate the audience that will show up to see a movie starring The Rock on opening weekend. It’s well-staged, but it’s very grounded, and in the end, it’s just a truck bumping fenders with a few cars on a freeway, something that seems very modestly-imagined. As shot by Dana Gonzales, the film has a grounded, anti-slick aesthetic. It is one of those movies that I liked well enough, but that I can’t honestly urge you to run out and see theatrically. It is such a modest pleasure, at best, that it feels like a film that will work equally well at home in four months. For Johnson, this is by far the smallest of the films he’s got coming out this year, and the least action-oriented. I’m not sure his audience will respond, and I’m not sure the audience that might like it will get the message about what kind of film it actually is, so “Snitch” might end up suffering the worst fate possible if come Monday morning, no one’s talking about it at all.
“Snitch” opens in theaters everywhere today.