Dwayne Johnson, Barry Pepper, Jon Bernthal, Michael Kenneth Williams, Melina Kanakaredes, Nadine Velazquez, Rafi Gavron, David Harbour, Benjamin Bratt, Susan Sarandon
(Summit Entertainment; US theatrical: 22 Feb 2013 (General release); UK theatrical: 22 Feb 2013 (General release); 2013)
Two years ago, wrestler turned respectable genre actor, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson starred in a little action flick called Faster. The plot focused on an ex-con out to destroy anyone and everyone who set him up and, in the process, killed his brother. From the moment the human homunculus walked out of the prison gates, the movie never stopped. It was a relentless drive toward personal destruction and redemption via violent bloodshed and gunfire. Now, nearly three years later, Johnson turns up in the cinematic polar opposite of the aforementioned film. Snitch, supposedly “inspired” by true events, is everything Faster isn’t…and not in a good way. It is an overlong, talky melodrama into which a couple of competent stunt sequences are sandwiched. Those expecting a nonstop rollercoaster ride of car chases and pummelings better aim their amusement part expectations toward Kiddieland. Snitch is more dull than dynamic.
Johnson is John Matthews, the owner of a successful construction company. He has a new wife (Nadine Valazquez), a young daughter, and a pretty decent life…that is, until his son Jason (Rafi Gavron) from a previous marriage is arrested for drug possession and distribution. Facing a minimum/mandatory sentence of ten years, the boy has no friends to rat out, and therefore, no bargaining material with the Federal Prosecutor (Susan Sarandon) handling the case. Matthews, desperate to help his boy, makes an agreement - he will bring down a major drug kingpin and his cartel as long as the government reduces Jason’s possible punishment. With the help of a convict (Jon Berthal) his local thug buddy (Michael Kennedy Williams) and an undercover cop (Barry Pepper), Matthews starts working for the kingpin known as El Topo (Benjamin Bratt). Naturally, when his cover is blown, he has to stand his ground to stay alive…and save his son.
Snitch is not what you think it is. For the first 45 minutes, it is like Ordinary People on some ineffectual steroids. Something bad happens to supposedly good people and then said solid citizens spend endless interactions wringing their hands over their horrid happenstance. It’s like one big “WHY?” Accusations fly, guilt is dredged up, and then the Rock gets a brilliant idea: he will turn into a suburban Scarface to save his clearly ungrateful kid from paying for his crime of curiosity. Yep - Jason admits trying drugs, perhaps a post-millennial mea culpa required by the motion picture police. His interest in the elicit joys of pharmaceuticals leads him to the role of unwilling mule, and his dad into a long haul dope trucker. Then stunt coordinator turned fledgling filmmaker Ric Roman Waugh stages his first auto on auto frenzy…and the film fails to live up to any potential it may have had.
You see, Mr. Waugh is clearly enamored of the desperate (and thankfully, dying out) creative conceit known as…the shaky-cam. That’s right, from a young man trying to escape the cops to a 18 wheeler careening carelessly through a Texas junkyard, the lens never stops shivering. Heck, when Matthews is confronting his unglued ex-wife (Melina Kanakaredes) about the way she’s raised their kid, the lack of image stability is stupefying. On occasion, Waugh settles down and lets a scene play out sans the optical stutter, but for the most part, Paul Greengrass would be impressed - or maybe not. It’s just another example of Snitch‘s failings. The action feels awkward and incomplete while the dramatics are drawn out to the point of preposterousness. By the time Johnson looks pensively off into the distance for the 15th time, we’ve stopped considering him a character. Instead, he’s a mere placeholder in a narrative that doesn’t really know what it wants to be.
Even worse, there are plot points that no one ever mentions. Jason’s friend is clearly a big time distributor - yet he can get a reduced sentence by ratting out…a lower level rube? Matthews has to basically agree to capture every major drug lord South of the Border, and even then the sweetheart deal is slow in coming. Even worse, Sarandon’s DA is running for the Senate, yet never once do we get the mandatory “this would be good for the campaign” conversation. Nor do we get the “if this gets out, it could ruin you” bit. When Matthews finds that one of his workers was once in prison, he automatically assumes that he would know the local pushers. Of course, he does, but that relationship is lost in a collection of hip-hop send-offs and recreation yards credos. Everything conveniently leads to the inevitable showdown between Johnson, his muscular bulk, and a semi screaming down the highway.
Perhaps if Snitch‘s action sequences were better, or more abundant, we wouldn’t care about the concentration on complaining. At least, in between the endless arguments and accusations we’d get some edge of the seat catharsis. Instead, we keep waiting - waiting for Matthews to cut a deal with the Feds…waiting for his convict employee to set up a mandatory meeting…waiting for the moment the drug deal goes sour…and most importantly, waiting for the moment when the Rock pulls out his pythons and starts wailing on guys. Of course, the latter never happens. Instead, he gets beaten up, emasculated in service of a character that doesn’t resonate as realistic. Someone like John Matthews looks like he could kick butt all day long. Instead, this brawny beefcake is often depicted as nothing but normal - much to the chagrin of his PED-positive fans.
Yes, you can give Johnson credit for crawling out of his stern-jawed comfort zone and trying something different, but Snitch is not unique enough to wipe away the stain of expectations. When you see the cast and watch the trailer, you expect 88 minutes of thrills, spills, and cheap entertainment thrills. What you get instead are parents blaming each other for missed opportunities and misguided priorities, as well as the formerly lawless arguing over their new found route along the road to the straight and narrow. Two plus years ago, the Rock played to his inherent onscreen values and came up with a decent b-movie diversion. This time around, he fails. Snitch just sucks.