It’s almost impossible to make Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson look vulnerable; Snitch manages to do just that, giving the muscle-bound star his best on screen performance to date. He’s given the chance to actually flex his acting muscles, instead of the ones that made him an icon in the world of professional wrestling. As for the film itself, Snitch takes unexpected twists and turns while delivering a moderately satisfying tale, but for every thrilling or emotional moment there are preachy, implausible, lackluster ones.
In Snitch, Johnson stars as John Matthews, a desperate father who agrees to go undercover for the DEA and infiltrate a drug cartel to get a ten year criminal sentence reduced for his son Jason (an emotive Rafi Gavron), a first-time drug offender.
Snitch is very loosely based on events reported in a 1999 Frontline broadcast about mandatory minimum sentencing for first-time, nonviolent offenders. With Snitch director Ric Roman Waugh returns to the themes of unjust incarceration that appeared in his 2008 flick, Felon. Although the tone isn’t as brutal here, there’s a clear issue-oriented agenda from the opening minutes of Snitch, when Jason in seemingly framed by a friend. This obvious agenda works directly against the movie’s overall entertainment value.
Susan Sarandon plays the fiery federal prosecutor that John ultimately agrees to work with if she can reduce his son’s jail time. As usual, Sarandon is commanding on screen, even though an actress of her caliber in this small, ordinary role is surely just going through the motions.
Similarly, the underrated Barry Pepper is a real treat to watch as an undercover DEA agent working alongside the U.S. District Attorney. When he’s on screen with Sarandon, behind what may be the world’s most unfortunate beard, the duo add plenty of depth and presence that the film needs to remain grounded and engaging. And, to his credit, when Johnson appears on screen with them, he completely holds his own, looking bulky but never stoic or out of place.
In his previous roles, Johnson seemed almost entirely unable to access the full range of human emotion. Often, it’s seemed as if it wasn’t Johnson playing the roles as much as it was his alter ego, the charismatic WWE superstar The Rock, acting instead. In his film career, he’s proven naturally talented at being big and charismatic while oozing with bravado whether he’s playing an Egyptian warrior, a G.I. Joe, or a tooth fairy. So, it’s good to see him try something remarkably different here in a role that’s much more subdued and sympathetic; he’s intentionally not at his action hero best.
Johnson doesn’t get to rely on his usual go-to techniques. There are no wisecracks, no overconfident flashes of the pearly whites, no chances to drop “the people’s elbow” on the villains. It’s refreshing to see Johnson in a role that could have been played by the likes of Aaron Eckhart, Ethan Hawke or Edward Norton. That too brings its problems though due to the actor’s imposing stature.
When the Johnson squares off against a few small-time, teenage thugs in Snitch, you wait for him to “lay the smackdown” on them, expecting him to demolish them with ease, and instead the star ends up as a bloody mess lying face down on the pavement. It’s bizarre; John’s always the least intimidating character on screen.
At six-foot-four, not one character pauses to acknowledge how darn colossal this guy is, which is surprisingly off-putting to the point that it can be distracting. He just doesn’t look like the average businessman that he’s supposed to be. The movie’s wardrobe department keeps Johnson in long sleeves throughout the entirety of the film, assumably to attempt to hide his superhero-like physique. Yet, there’s no hiding that he still looks like a former world heavyweight champion — which is what makes him so popular as an action star in the first place.
Nonetheless, Johnson’s character spends the entire runtime at the mercy of the other people on screen, whether they’re hard-boiled government officials or violent thugs.
Over the course of the film, John plunges deep into the drug world in hopes of help the U.S. District Attorney’s office land a major player in a ruthless cartel. It’s a fantastic premise, but hardly believable by the time John’s ordeal is finished. And this film desperately relies on realism.
John just ends up going too deep, too fast for me to completely buy it, from working closely with a cutthroat, high ranking dealer (the incomparable Michael K. Williams) to agreeing to transport drug shipments over the border for a kingpin (Benjamin Bratt) in his company’s trucks.
Waugh, however, does a tremendous job capturing such a serious, complex tone throughout the film. What he doesn’t do the best job with is pacing. Waugh tries to paint many different pictures of fatherhood through its various male characters, but the end result is muddled and fleeting instead of thought provoking. Waugh spends too much time showing things like John looking through a stack of job applications to find somebody who checked the felony conviction box and yet relatively little time with the hero’s emotional interactions with his wife or son. When a worried John frantically calls his wife (Nadine Velazquez) and sheds a tear near the film’s conclusion, it’s moving but it would have been much more so if they had said more than a few words to each other previously.
It must also be said that Jon Bernthal (formerly of The Walking Dead) is riveting in the film as John’s ex-con employee who gets lured into becoming his partner. Waugh and co-writer Justin Haythe are clever to include Berthal’s character, Daniel, whose desperate yet reluctant reentry into drug-running contributes much to the grittiness and tension in the film’s storyline. Additionally, as the drug kingpin El Topo, Bratt isn’t giving much to do, but like Pepper and Sarandon, the actor adds some weight and credibility to what would be otherwise forgettable scenes.
All in all, while there’s plenty of gunfire, fights and car chases, what makes “Snitch” work more than you’d expect is that punches and bullets are entirely unable to fix John’s problems. These sorts of typical action movie solutions don’t provide any feasible way to right wrongs or undo the damage done. That’s smart, which makes for more earnest, unpredictable tale. As a result, Snitch ends up being more of a dramatic thriller than a mindless shoot-em-up.
That’s important because Waugh’s Snitch takes 112 minutes of drama and action to entertain you, but also to painstakingly show the inequity in a system in which a first offender on a drug charge can, in many cases, spend more time behind bars than a rapist or murderer.
Fair warning: when the closing credits are preceded by statistics about unjust mandatory minimum drug-sentencing requirements it makes Waugh’s views about the issue all the more clearer, as if somehow you were too naive to miss them.
If you can deal with the heavy-handed message and some hefty faults in believability and pacing, the film is still somehow better than it should be. Snitch is strangely compelling, full of solid performances, and it has a way to keep you guessing about the next turn Johnson’s character must take to somehow show himself strong on behalf of his son.
The Blu-ray edition of Snitch includes a tiresome commentary from Waugh and the editor, Jonathan Chibnall. There’s also a polished, brief making-of featurette and some deleted scenes including a heated confrontation between Sarandon and Pepper’s characters that’s as good as anything in the film itself.