Rating: 3 stars out of 5
Whenever Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson (‘Journey 2: The Mysterious Island’, ‘Tooth Fairy’) is made the leading man in a movie, it is natural to assume a few things – that his nickname (regrettably) applies just as much to his default stone-faced expression on the big screen as his wrestling power, and that the film will be pumped full of action sequences to make use of his brawn.
The latter seems even likelier when ‘Snitch’ is directed by Ric Roman Waugh, who was a Hollywood stuntman for over 15 years before branching into writing and directing. But rather than going down the obvious road, Waugh casts aside straight-up action for a calculated crime drama, based on a true story, that unrolls in a rather relaxed pace.
Those who like secret schemes and unconventional partnerships will enjoy this movie. If you’re hooked on television drama ‘Breaking Bad’, this runs along similar lines – dad turned bad-ass by circumstance who deftly plays the odds in his favour without much suspicion.
Johnson plays construction business owner John Matthews who has a strained relationship with teenage son Jason (Rafi Gavron) since getting divorced and remarried. The film opens alarmingly with Jason running from a police ambush – he’s apparently been set up with a package of pills.
John gets an anxious call from his ex-wife (Melina Kanakarades, whose bit as a soft-hearted, distraught mother is too one-dimensional to leave an impression) and discovers the jarring reality of the situation: Jason faces a minimum sentence of ten years unless he can inform the police about a drug dealer.
Desperate to help his son, John cuts a deal with steely attorney and Congress candidate Joanne Keeghan (Susan Sarandon) to reduce Jason’s sentence if he helps a drug arrest in Jason’s place.
Risking everything, John goes undercover to track down a drug dealer with the backing of a task force led by Keeghan’s right hand man, Agent Cooper (Barry Pepper, who channels no-nonsense agent with quiet precision). He teams up with ex-con employee Daniel James (Jon Bernthal gives his street-hardened character a nice human sheen), who introduces him to big-time drug dealer Malik. Trying to lead a clean life for his family’s sake, Daniel is reluctant to get involved at first but eventually progresses from being an in-the-dark middleman to playing a key role in the master plan.
Under the guise of transporting drugs for Malik in his freight trucks, John’s quest pushes him deeper into the center of the drug cartel as he’s forced to nab bigger fish, putting his life and everything that depends on it in danger.
Amidst the stealthy operation, there are some tender moments where family slips into the foreground. Johnson succeeds in portraying a distressed and protective dad in his most emotive role yet, switching from honest declarations of fatherly love that are not overly done, to quick-thinking man with a mission, who calmly smooth talks his way out of sticky situations with the cops and the cartel.
Bernthal also shines as the troubled ex-convict trying to make good. His character is instantly sympathetic – especially during heart-to-hearts with his young son.
If you’re a fan of action, be warned that little is to be found. Only the last twenty minutes or so has serious scuffling in a highway shoot-out that ends surprisingly well – thanks to John’s foresight and Daniel’s loyalty, everything falls into place. While director Waugh must be commended for producing a convincing drama without fists and bullets flying, the film is not without flaws. Bits that could be climatic, like when Daniel finds out that John’s helping the cops, don’t build up enough tension and conflict before settling into the next step of the plot. Scenes where the characters have meaningful dialogue are also cut off, literally, by Waugh’s tendency to block half the subject’s face while shooting extreme close-ups.
Nevertheless, ‘Snitch’ is an easily watchable film with a serious message – a tidy accomplishment for the relatively new Waugh that will probably place him square on the movie-making map. With some luck and choice casting, this never-before-seen weight to Johnson’s acting abilities will be spilling over to his stream of upcoming films in 2013, such as ‘Pain and Gain’ and ‘G.I Joe: Retaliation’.