Movie Review: Snitch: Dwayne Johnson Vs. the War on Drugs in a Smart Old-School Action Film

By February 21, 2013
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By James Rocchi

Rating: 3.5/5

If you’re looking for the lovable, slow-burn, eyebrow-raising, “Jabroni!’-shouting version of Dwayne Johnson in this film, you won’t find it.  In fact, you won’t find it in many of his films; in the phony rings of the WWE, Dwayne Johnson is “The Rock,” pumped up on being pumped up and ready to rassle. On-screen, Dwayne Johnson is, perhaps, the most interesting action film star we have — one who makes interesting choices, one who does films he doesn’t have to do and stretches in them as well, one who can sense the tonal differences between “Journey 2; The Mysterious Island,” “The Rundown” and “Faster” and deliver perfectly calibrated and chosen levels of performance, charisma and action for each.  “Snitch” is, in fact, one of  the most interesting action films we’ve gotten in a while, if only because the villain of the piece isn’t Albanian kidnappers or Russian terrorists but, really, our nation’s expensive, futile and capricious war on drugs and the brutal  collateral damage it does to American lives.

Inspired by a true story, “Snitch” begins as Johnson’s striving construction-business owner John Matthews finds out his son Jason (Rafi Gavron) has been arrested for signing a delivery confirmation on 7,000 ecstasy pills he was supposed to simply hold for his friend. His friend has already been busted; Jason is asked to either name others and plea a deal or do 10 years thanks to mandatory minimum laws presided over by Federal Prosecutor (and Senatorial Candidate) Joanne Keegan (Susan Sarandon).  John Matthews reasons that if his son can’t find a higher-up dealer to arrest so as to mitigate his sentence … then he’ll have to.

It’s exactly the kind of plot that could motivate a much dumber and much bigger film, but “Snitch” is actually interested in its characters and their circumstances over mere mayhem; John is terrified every time his son emerges into the bright lights of the prison visitation room bruised and beaten, and considering that Keegan’s more interested in appearing tough on crime than she is on actually being smart about it, she can’t show any mercy in an election season. And so John — a straight-arrow of a man, a hard worker trying to help his son and ex-wife — has to try and become a criminal.

“Snitch” is produced in part by Participant Productions, who’ve previously given you such crunchy  granola-liberal films as “An Inconvenient Truth,” “The Cove” and “Fast Food Nation.” (They have also, oddly, given us a re-make of ‘The Crazies,” which feels like more of a stretch.) And while you do have such issue-film staples as carefully-presented exposition — like when lawyer David Harbour explains that most mandatory-minimum cases snare non-violent first-time offenders, not kingpins and killers — the script (credited to director Ric Roman Waugh and Justin Haythe) also gets to the real matters at hand, a family ruined , and a father’s desperation to set things right. “Snitch” brings to mind one of David Simon’s lines from the documentary “The House I Live In,” where the creator of “The Wire” notes “What drugs haven’t destroyed … the War on Drugs has.”

Director Waugh, an ex-stuntman, has a capacity for action — there’s some chases and gunplay — and he casts well; Jon Bernthal plays a trying-to-reform worker Matthews uses as an entree to the underworld, while Michael K. Williams plays a low-level dealer. As for Johnson, he’s … real, which will come as a disappointment to anyone expecting the looser, funnier Johnson in this. “Snitch” isn’t in the upper end of Johnson’s filmography, but it’s far from the bottom — and again, it’s weird to see a low-budget B-movie March release that has more, and more interesting, things to say about our American lives than most of the 2012 Oscar nominees. “Snitch” is selling itself as a thriller with action, but really it’s a tragedy — about how completely idiotic and cruel our war on drugs has become, and how we pay for it as both taxpayers and victims. Not bad for a movie starring a wrestler. Too bad he, and we, have problems we can’t just body-slam.

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James Rocchi lives in Los Angeles. Born in Canada, he's a regular contributor, interviewer and reviewer for MSN Movies, Indiewire's The Playlist, GeekNation, ScreenCrush.com and the Toronto Star. He's also written for ifc.com, Netflix, Mother Jones magazine and The Guardian UK. A member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, you can find him on twitter @jamesrocchi.