Snitch should have been called Bait and Switch. The marketing promises kick-ass action from Dwayne Johnson, the gentleman better known under his pro-wrestling name, the Rock. The actual film is a relatively quiet, character-focused drama with only one extended action sequence.
Director and cowriter Ric Roman Waugh makes no bones about Snitch being an old-fashioned message movie: It uses a fictional scenario to highlight the injustice of federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws. While the movie certainly deserves credit for having points to make, and compelling ones, it makes them with zero originality or flair.
Johnson plays John Matthews, owner of a small, midwestern construction company. He’s your basic good-citizen Everyman until his 18-year-old son, Jason (Rafi Gavron), who lives with John’s estranged ex, is arrested for distribution of Ecstasy. Because Jason barely qualifies as a drug dealer — his crime was receiving a package from a friend who planned to sell the contents — he doesn’t know enough to snitch on higher-ups in the trade. That means he can’t reduce his 10-year minimum sentence.
Hoping to save his son from a decade in the clink, John persuades an ambitious, hard-as-nails D.A. (Susan Sarandon) to let him set up his own sting operation. With the help of a young employee who used to be in “the game” (Jon Bernthal), John offers his transportation services to the local narcotics kingpin (Michael K. Williams). The straight-arrow businessman presents himself as another casualty of the recession driven to crime. Soon, of course, he’s in over his head.
It’s not hard to imagine someone pitching this scenario as “Breaking Bad” meets Taken, with the fish-out-of-water novelty of the former and the moral simplicity of the latter. The final product is a lot less interesting. The movie owes its plodding quality partially to the script, by Waugh and Justin Haythe, which hits all the obvious beats and no unexpected ones. For instance, we’re reminded regularly that both John and Bernthal’s felon-gone-straight character are motivated by love for their sons. We also have to sit through scenes in which the women in their lives beg them to stay home and play it safe. (Would that these nagging-significant-other interludes, which always end the same way, could be retired from our screens forever.)
But part of the blame belongs with the casting. In flicks such as Fast Five, Johnson is a personable slab of beefcake who doesn’t take himself too seriously. This dramatic role has sapped him of that charisma. It’s not a wooden performance, just devoid of dynamism or nuance, and the script’s simple conception of John doesn’t help.
Snitch derives a bit more fizz from its supporting players, including Bernthal (who played Shane on “The Walking Dead”), Williams and Barry Pepper as a seen-it-all federal agent. The climactic action sequence involving a semi is fun, and the film’s hand-held camerawork provides some movement, though it’s now such a genre standard that it doesn’t generate a vérité feel. For those seeking a gritty look inside the drug trade, this is not “The Wire” — as Williams’ presence (he played outlaw icon Omar Little on the HBO series) inadvertently reminds us.
If the filmmakers hoped to convince the average Rock fan to rethink mandatory minimum sentencing laws — or to think about them at all — they may have succeeded. If they hoped to make anyone remember Snitch itself for more than a week or so, they stand convicted of overweening ambition.