A film review by Craig J. Koban March 6, 2013


2013, PG-13, 112 mins.

John Matthews: Dwayne Johnson / Joanne Keeghan: Susan Sarandon / Daniel James: Jon Bernthal / Billy Cooper: Barry Pepper / El Topo: Benjamin Bratt / Jason: Rafi Gavron / Annalisa: Nadine Velazquez

Directed by Ric Roman Waugh / Written by Waugh and Justin Haythe.

I’m going to tattle on SNITCH right from the get-go by saying that it's aggressively and falsely advertised as a macho, gun-touting, and action-heaving film vehicle for its muscle bound behemoth, Dwayne Johnson.  

But, that’s actually the good news.  I've often lamented about many of Johnson’s past limp-wristed and feeble film choices, which never really harnessed his biceps-bulging on-screen magnetism (see THE TOOTH FAIRY and THE GAME PLAN).  What’s compelling about SNITCH is that Mr. Johnson goes quite a bit outside of his performance comfort window and element by not making a perfunctory shoot ‘em up menagerie of murder-death-kill mayhem; instead, he dials everything down to play a fairly straight laced and serious role in a drug trafficking drama that has some weighty and contemplative themes.  

Ultimately, this is precisely what allows Ric Roman Waugh’s film to separate itself from audience expectations and emerge as something more involving and intriguing.  Inspired by a PPS Frontline documentary about how the U.S.’s federal drug policy encourages the arrested to “snitch” on their accomplices and how the government’s minimum sentencing laws are seriously laughable compared to other more serious crimes, SNITCH tells an “inspired by true events” tale about a determined father that will go to absolutely any lengths – and I do mean any – to see the release of his teenage son, whom because of his own naiveté got busted for possession of a narcotic and now faces a seriously long prison sentence.  

Thank God that this kid’s dad is indeed “The Rock”. 

John Matthews (Johnson) is a fairly well off and career minded owner of a warehouse and transportation business that one day – and to his horror – has to experience every father’s worst potential nightmare: seeing his son being arrested on drug trafficking charges.  His rather hapless 18-year-old kid, Jason (Rafi Gavron) is a decent teen that has never been busted before on anything, but what he’s really guilty of is stupidity: he accepted a package shipped from his buddy filled with ecstasy (which his friend would later take and distribute on his own).  Well, Jason’s “friend” was arrested, ratted out and set up Jason, and now the terrified kid is facing a mandatory 10-year sentence under the mandatory drug sentencing guidelines.  Predictably, John fears for his son’s abilities to get off on the crime and his chances to even make it through a decade of incarceration alongside dangerous sociopaths.  



John decides to take action.  He speaks to the prosecutor (Susan Sarandon) who informs him that if his son helps the DEA set up other pushers, then she’ll reduce his sentence.  Jason steadfastly refuses, which causes John to take rather desperate measures.  He agrees to work with the prosecutor and the lead DEA agent (Barry Pepper) to conspire to take down the biggest drug peddler in the city named Malik (Michael K. Williams) and, in turn, the Big Kahuna cartel leader known as “El Topo” (Benjamin Bratt).  If John succeeds then the prosecutor will let Jason go altogether.  However, John’s undercover mission is not without peril.  He has to keep everything a secret from his wife, Jason, and even from his co-conspirator, one of his business employees and ex-con (John Bernthal, formerly of TV’s THE WAKING DEAD), that agrees to get John in on a meeting with Malik.  Expectedly, the whole clandestine mission begins to take its toll on poor John with his live and his son’s hanging in the balance. 

For the most part, SNITCH is surprisingly and refreshingly free of relative action throughout, which helps to elevate it modestly above the moniker of yet another one-note and paint-by-numbers drug thriller.  Large scale action sequences don’t really occur until about a halfway through, which then later culminates in a massive chase down a freeway towards to Mexican border with John dexterously driving an 18-wheeler big rig through heavy traffic while avoiding being turned to road kill by El Topo’s goons.  The action is filmed with – sigh – far too much shaky cam histrionics and spastic editorial messiness, but SNITCH thankfully is more about the psychological build up to moments like that, during which we see John get deeper and deeper into the lion’s den, so to speak, where an easy out or simple resolution becomes all but impossible. 

Of course, there is also the large chasm of logic that viewers have to leap over to believe that a relatively straight-laced, law-abiding, and good natured everyman like John would be willing to easily risk everything at the drop of a hat to align himself with the DEA and lead prosecutor and become a one-man undercover sting army relatively overnight without any training or experience.  That’s where Johnson’s deceptively good and under-the-radar performance comes in.  Clearly, this marks an opportunity for Johnson to stretch his relatively limited thespian skills (he has always gotten by more on charm and charisma than with raw acting talent) to plausible create a tangible man of distress and guilt while, at the same time, imbuing in him a sense of gritty and courageous purpose and resolve.  Johnson's massive visage is essentially that of the Hulk (he’s literally twice the size of just about everyone else on screen), but the genius of his underplayed and nuanced performance is that he manages to suggest a man of deep concern, anxiety, and vulnerability while on his dangerous mission.  

The other performances compliment him as well, especially by Michael Kenneth Williams’ scene-stealing turn as the sneering and lecherous Malik and John Bernthal’s savvy and street-wise authentic portrayal of John’s uneasy partner-in-fake-crime.  Barry Pepper – even with a horrendously phony and unfathomably long goatee appliance on his face – manages to be reliably chameleon-like in his turn as the grizzled and pragmatic DEA official.  Sarandon has an icy resolve and soft-spoken toughness as the lead prosecutor that begrudgingly gives John a chance to secure his son’s ultimate freedom.  What’s key here is that you come out of SNITCH having more fond memories of the character dynamics and performances than you do for the obligatory action. 

SNITCH has a high pedigree co-screenwriter in Justin Haythe (who wrote REVOLUTIONARY ROAD), and he fearlessly tackles themes in the film that other timid writers would have backed off on.  There’s an ambition to the script in the way it wants to tackle the flawed and thorny federal drug laws, not to mention the political and legal forces – as a direct result of it – that are so willing to crack down on someone like Jason - a decent lad that just made a dumb error in judgment - as a public scapegoat in their war on drugs.  SNITCH explores these themes, to be sure, but is nonetheless a bit vague on what its ultimate message is (federal laws = bad; but noble and good man risking his livelihood to work around those laws = good?).   Thankfully, the film never methodically dwells on them too much, which would have proved to be distracting.  Instead, we get an involving, tense and well-acted thriller that highlights why Johnson has more to offer than just brooding swagger and brawny intensity.  He emotionally strips down from his larger-than-life physical façade and creates a man of palpable emotional uncertainty and fear.  

That’s SNITCH’s real coup de grace.


CTV Segment - Underrated Dwayne Johnson Films:

  H O M E