Review of 'Snitch,' starring Dwayne Johnson

By Michael Murphy,
Despite its fumblings, 'Snitch' works, thanks to an impressive turn from Dwayne Johnson

“Sound like he ready for the game”

Can you smell what The Rock is cookin’? I’ve been smelling it for years, ever since the WWE superstar made the jump from pro wrestling to acting, and I have to say, it has always smelled pretty good. Even long after the nickname “The Rock” was dropped from his billing and he became known simply as Dwayne Johnson, The Rock has brought a charismatic screen presence to nearly all of his projects. He has spearheaded some notable hits, including Peter Berg’s The Rundown, the kiddie box office smash The Game Plan, and 2011’s Fast Five.

Before returning to the streets – muscles flexed and profusely sweating – in this summer’s The Fast and the Furious 6, Johnson has chosen an interesting project: Ric Roman Waugh’s Snitch, which marketed itself as a by-the-books action thriller. However, it is a mostly thrilling character study that hinges on Johnson’s performance and creates situational duress that allows Johnson to expand beyond the boundaries in which he’s been confined for so long. Though its social commentary stumbles, the action can seem overblown and the plot does a poor job of hiding its contrivances, Snitch is a very solid movie that successfully proves itself as something larger than it seems to be.

Johnson plays John Matthews, an affluent president of a trucking company with strong political connections, a family, a good heart and personable attitude, and an estranged son and wife that have all but excluded him from their lives. One day, John’s son from his first marriage, Jason (Rafi Gavron), accepts a package of drugs that he’s agreed to hold on to for his best friend. Unfortunately, customs tags it, and the police come pounding on Jason’s front door. Alerted by his ex-wife of his son’s situation, John puts on his ‘tough-as-nails father’ hat and attempts to persuade his son to work with the authorities and turn his best friend in, but unfortunately the best friend has already pinned Jason as an accomplice in order to trim down his own sentence.

Sticking to his integrity, Jason refuses to snitch, but John refuses to let his son remain in prison for a possible ten to twenty-year sentence due to Mandatory Minimum Sentencing (MMS) laws. He seeks possibilities from the district attorney running for Congress (Susan Sarandon) and a leading DEA agent (Barry Pepper). With limited options, John strikes a bargain: if he can assist in the capture of a high-level individual in the drug game, they will reduce Jason’s sentence to a single year. They all agree, and before long, John is in cahoots with a two-strike drug dealer (Michael K. Williams) and way in over his head when he meets the head of the Mexican drug cartel (Benjamin Bratt), who hopes to use John’s trucking company for international drug trafficking.

It may sound hard to believe that Snitch can be anything better than say, A Good Day to Die Hard, but it's the confidence about the film, the fact that it knows that it is an acceptable thriller with a February release, that elevates it beyond what I expected to see. Stuntman-turned-director Ric Roman Waugh has a long way to go before proving his total worth – his affinity for a constantly shaking camera, even during action-less scenes, makes some of the drama and action indiscernible – but he stages some great set pieces, namely the high-speed climax involving John fending off cars of cartel heavies with one of his own semi-trucks.

Waugh also creates a fair amount of intensity as the film enters its second half. Johnson’s first drug-for-money exchange with Michael K. Williams reaches some heart-racing levels – plus it’s nice to see Williams puffing away on Newports like Omar Little in The Wire – and he lifts nice performance work from the always-reliable Susan Sarandon, Barry Pepper (who seems to have forgotten to remove his True Grit facial hair), and Johnson, who impresses the most.

Johnson has a charismatic presence, and not just because he’s such a sizeable guy who often takes up more than two-thirds of a long shot frame. Falling in between the muscle builders (Schwarzenegger, Stallone) and the everyday men (Statham, Willis) in terms of acting, he’s evolved a great deal over his career and has set out to truly achieve his goal of becoming a respected actor instead of ‘The Rock' onscreen. If Snitch proves one thing, it’s that Johnson can carry a movie that is not reliant on pyrotechnics and that he’s capable of something grander. Dramatic moments at first lead to some inadvertent laughter, but Johnson noticeably settles in as the story continues. His character develops the most, we see his progression of confidence as an informant, and when he finally takes control – when he finally lets his Rock roots show – it’s fully warranted.

Snitch is not the most technically excellent movie – the ping-pang soundtrack could have easily been composed by a tone-deaf guy banging a ladle on a stove pan – but it is a movie that has a goal that it achieves wholeheartedly. It establishes a unique situation, pits the hero against enemies who far outmatch him, and sees him fight for what he loves most. Its social commentary about the MMS laws could be more subtle (the ‘Inspired by True Events’ branding does not help…nor is it true), and when the plot forces us back into the jailhouse so that we can remember why John’s doing this in the first place, we can’t help but notice the hiccups. Also, heavy exposition introducing one of John’s employees – an ex-con who introduces him to Malik, played by The Walking Dead alumnus Jon Bernthal – and then having his involvement continue throughout the rest of the adventure seems nonsensical. Nonetheless, Snitch is greater than expected and leaves us waiting patiently for more from Dwayne Johnson, the actor; this is a desire that I never foresaw as a possibility back when he headlined The Scorpion King.

And back then, he was billed simply as The Rock. Keep cookin, Dwayne.

6/10

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