I’m not sure how to say this, but The Rock is really turning into quite an actor. Former pro wrestlers rarely figure into Master Thespian contests, but even early in his career, Dwayne Johnson showed signs of sticking around. Once again I am forced to acknowledge that, in my review of The Scorpion King, I opined that the man had no business on the big screen. Once again, I must eat my words. (Please inform Mr. Johnson that the plate of crow he sent over has arrived right on schedule.)
Snitch isn’t anyone’s idea of a great film, but it aspires to be a good one. More importantly, it does so with genuine intelligence, an intriguing cops-and-robbers story in the vein of Heat. Johnson excels at larger-than-life superheroes (The Rundown remains my favorite film of his), but here he really sells us on a normal guy forced into extraordinary circumstances. His John Matthews runs a successful construction company, enough to help out with his family from a first marriage and provide his second wife and their daughter with a nice lifestyle. Then his son (Rafi Gavron) lands in jail on a flimsy drug charge, and harsh federal narcotics laws ensure that he’ll stay there unless he can turn over his “contacts.” The boy doesn’t have any – and wouldn’t fink, even if he did – so off to the clink he goes. Rather than abandon his child to the tender machinations of corrupt guards and shower rapists, Matthews decides to find some drug dealers of his own and set them up. His company has a fleet of trucks – perfect for transportation – and a well-meaning ex-con on his payroll (The Walking Dead’s Jon Bernthal) can point him in the right direction. From there, it’s just a question of climbing the underworld ladder until he can land a sufficiently big fish to turn over to the Feds in exchange for his boy’s instant parole.
The scenario aspires to real-world grit, along with some preachy moments about harsh drug laws that don’t really work. It finds an acceptable tone for the verite, though it can’t hope to compete with the best crime thrillers out there. Johnson, however, does a beautiful job of conveying a normal man in over his head. Matthews is competent and rolls with the punches well, but he’s also swimming in deep waters where the sharks show no mercy. The Feds, led by Susan Sarandon’s ambitious attorney, offer a little help, but they mainly see him as an expendable asset. That puts him in a position we’ve rarely seen with the actor before: a vulnerable underdog, one bad step from getting shot in the head.
He gets help from a terrific pair of supporting players. Bernthal’s character is perhaps the most tragic, someone genuinely trying to put his life back together, only to get dragged back into the quagmire because of someone else’s agenda. Snitch mines a great deal of interesting material by not shying away from collateral damage: in order to save his son, Matthews may have to sacrifice a good man, and both characters know it.
A similar dynamic exists between Matthews and Cooper (Barry Pepper), a grizzled DEA Agent with no illusions about the price of realpolitik. He wants to help this man, but in the end, bringing down a drug kingpin means more to him (and his boss) than Matthews’ life. Pepper has quietly racked up some very strong performances of late, and this one readily continues the streak.
The give-and-take between the three figures – on top of real danger from the drug lords they hunt – helps Snitch overcome some significant problems in the pacing department. Plot development occurs with a convenience that borders on deux ex machina at times, and while the heroes’ journey speaks to messy complexities, the villains remain one-note baddies throughout. (Furthermore, since they consist largely of blacks and Latinos, we’re forced to grapple with uncomfortable racial stereotypes as well.) Writer-director Ric Roman Waugh possesses ambition in spades, but his would-be crime saga eventually settles for second-tier cop show status instead of the brilliant thriller he clearly hopes to achieve.
Then again, it might have been even worse without the canny casting of the lead. Johnson’s track record remains spotty at best, but his work here suggests that he’s not going anywhere. Even better, he may have a career long after his chiseled abs have begun to fade, suggesting that his dedication as a wrestler translated completely over to acting. Hopefully Snitch won’t be the high point of his resume, but it does suggest that he’ll be adding titles to it for quite some time to come.