Although far more restrained and subtle than Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s fans are probably used to, the crime drama Snitch overcomes a somewhat unbelievable “based on a true story” set-up to deliver a solid bit of slow burning entertainment that would have starred the likes of Warren Oates or Lee Marvin had this film been made in the 60s or 70s. The set pieces are kept to a bare minimum with focus placed firmly on character rather than action. It’s probably most easily comparable to Johnson’s work in the underrated Faster, but even this is a step back from that film. It doesn’t always hit the right notes, but the effort is certainly admirable and appreciated overall.
Construction supply company owner John Matthews (Johnson) wants so desperately to free his son from prison following a first offence drug bust with a mandatory minimum sentence. Since his son has no one to roll over and play informant on, John enters into an agreement with the US attorney’s office to go undercover to commute the sentence on his kid’s behalf. Naturally, he has no clue what he’s doing and he ends up getting in deeper than he could have imagined, forcing his family and that of his ex-con and former gangbanger accomplice (Jon Bernthal) into a dangerous situation involving a cartel boss (Benjamin Bratt) looking to transport something far more dangerous than actual product.
Famed stunt coordinator and director Ric Roman Waugh holds off on the action save for a shootout at the midpoint and a pretty spectacular non-CGI big rig chase at the end, and hardcore action fans might not find a heck of a lot to grab onto here. Fans of old school crime sagas, however, will get a lot more mileage out of a sharp script from Waugh and Revolutionary Road scribe Justin Haythe that starts to really get interesting once the implausible set-up gets taken care of. Waugh sometimes feels a little bit warier of the film’s quieter moments, but his cast offsets any kind of shakiness.
Johnson might not be able to pull off the film’s early sequences of vulnerability all that well since he’s too big of a guy to credibly seem like he could be bullied by a group of thugs, but he’s still a likeable, charismatic, and forceful kind of everyman. When he’s talking to co-workers or speaking out about his fears, it’s believable. Not so much the sight of him turning into a quivering mess at the sight of a handgun or getting his ass handed to him by a group of teenagers. It’s one of his best performances overall, and it shows that the current WWE champion has potential for far more range than his past efforts have let on.
Johnson also gets nice assists from his supporting cast including Susan Sarandon as the power hungry prosecutor, Barry Pepper as a doubting NARC (who seems to have stolen Johnny Depp’s facial hair and fashion sense from the 21 Jump Street reboot), and The Wire’s Michael Kenneth Williams as a mid-level dealer. Berthal also does great as the former shot caller who still commands respect despite wanting to go straight, but it feels like some of his character got left on the cutting room floor to shorten an already lengthy movie. If there is a weak link, it comes in the form of Bratt’s almost cartoonish and under-baked cartel boss that could have been trucked in from any hackneyed screenplay out there.
Those who like The Rock in crazed action mode should probably wait for Fast & Furious 6 or GI Joe: Retaliation later this year because that degree of thrilling spectacle isn’t what this one is all about. For those willing to try something a little different or were disappointed with Die Hard last week, Snitch hits the spot nicely.