A film review by Craig J. Koban March 6, 2013
2013, PG-13, 112 mins.
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
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.
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
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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: