Movie Review: Snitch
Austin360.com | Austin American-Statesman
When you hear Dwayne Johnson’s name, images of body-slams, menacing stares and flexed pectorals rush to mind. The man who came to fame as WWE’s the Rock has made a fairly smooth transition to the big screen over the past 10 years, but generally his roles have traded off his image as a chiseled and charismatic brute.
Austin filmmaker Ric Roman Waugh uses that persona to work to his advantage in “Snitch,” where Johnson plays against type as John Matthews, an entrepreneur struggling to save his family. Yes, his business is concrete, and he worked his way up, so he’s no stranger to calloused hands. And, yes, the movie poster does show Johnson giving an imposing stare. But “Snitch” is more about Johnson’s character’s heart and mind than his muscle. If this movie starred the Rock and not Dwayne Johnson, it would’ve ended in a matter of minutes and a flurry of fists.
The movie, filmed mostly in Louisiana, though the Austin skyline makes several appearances, was inspired by a PBS “Frontline” episode from the late 1990s that detailed the federal mandatory minimum sentencing program that put people behind bars for long periods of time for drug possession.
In the fictionalized version, which Waugh co-wrote with Justin Haythe (“Revolutionary Road”), Matthews’ son, Jason Collins (Rafi Gavron), who has kept his mother’s name following a less-than-amicable divorce, makes a stupid mistake when he agrees to receive a package of 2,000 ecstasy pills mailed by a friend. The package arrives with a team of federal agents. His parents (Melina Kanakaredes plays the frazzled mother) soon learn that this isn’t just a “teachable moment.” Due to mandatory minimums, Jason will spend 10 years in the penitentiary.
The only way to shorten the sentence is to roll over on another drug dealer, but the only dealer Jason knows is the one who sent him the package. Matthews promises his son — who gets a rough welcome to prison life — that he will do everything in his power to save him. The concerned father meets with federal prosecutor Joanne Keeghan (Susan Sarandon), who tells the father his very limited options. Matthews devises a plan to infiltrate the world of drugs to ensnare a dealer and leverage that arrest for his son’s freedom. Keeghan makes it clear that Matthews will be operating outside the law and assuming all the risks.
One of Matthews’ employees, Daniel James (Jon Bernthal), serves as Matthews’ proxy into the underground drug world. Daniel, an ex-con, is trying to walk the straight and narrow, supporting his wife and young child and resisting the temptations of his former life, but Matthews makes him an irresistible offer, with James unaware of Matthews’ end-game.
Their covert plan introduces Matthews to local drug dealer Malik (played with menace and wit by Michael K. Williams, whom “The Wire” fans will be thrilled to see). But Malik is just a step up the ladder to a bigger prize (in the eyes of Keeghan, anyway). When the name of Mexican cartel leader “El Topo” (an icy Benjamin Bratt) enters the fray, the risks increase, and Matthews’ attempts to help his son put his entire family in danger.
The game of cat-and-mouse, monitored by grizzled undercover Agent Cooper (the criminally underappreciated Barry Pepper), leads to a spectacular chase scene, which veteran stuntman and stunt coordinator Waugh directs with a visceral realism. Cars and trucks speed, twist, flip and roll to a wobbly halt or explode in a burst of flames. There’s no CGI going on here, just classic 1980s-style action.
Brazilian composer Antonio Pinto (“City of God”) helps build tension with a score that alternates between stirring strings and rattling electronica. The music helps set the tone for Waugh, who shows a restrained hand in slowly building the drama and fleshing out the main characters so the audience becomes emotionally invested in their struggle. Sarandon’s Keeghan feels a bit thin, but if the intention was to make politicians and bureaucrats come across as bloodless and selfish opportunists in the face of injustice, mission accomplished.
Johnson doesn’t show tremendous range in his role as father-turned-vigilante. But he does bring a depth of emotion and believable concern to the role of the father who discovers just how far he would go to protect his children and gives an unexpected face to the feeling of hopelessness. “Snitch” makes entertaining work of entwining elements of family drama, raw action and a message movie without feeling trite or heavy-handed. The movie’s premise strains credulity at times but sets up the action and heart of the film. “Snitch” marks a step forward for Johnson and proves that Waugh can handle material beyond standard action fare.