“Snitch” was not the film I was expecting. After a decade of films starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, I expected 75 to 80 minutes of a charismatic action hero beating up bad guys and bugging his eyes out for a half-dozen trademark “are you kidding me?” looks.
Admittedly, those films could be a lot of fun. But “Snitch” is not that film.
Director Ric Roman Waugh’s “Snitch” is more suspense than action. Johnson plays John Matthews, a trucking company owner in Missouri who is trying to manage his work life while splitting his home life between two families.
His first family features his current wife and young daughter, who live with him in a well-to-do home in the suburbs. But his ex-wife and estranged 18-year-old son Jason aren’t faring nearly as well. When Jason’s best friend sets him up in a DEA sting, Matthews becomes desperate to find a way to get his son out of a minimum 10-year drug trafficking sentence.
Unfortunately his best lead is a local prosecutor running for re-election (Susan Sarandon) who is more interested in busting as many traffickers as possible than worrying about whether they are just dumb kids who accepted the wrong package from UPS. And it doesn’t help that the dumb kid in question is spending more time in the prison infirmary than in his holding cell.
If this movie were made five years ago, Johnson’s character would have teamed up with his old Navy Seal buddies to parachute into the prison, bust out his son and expose some kind of underhanded scheme by the warden to justify all the carnage. Instead the famous wrestler-turned-actor is given one of his most difficult acting challenges to date, as Johnson’s character volunteers to go undercover for the DEA and snitch out a local drug lord in exchange for his son’s release.
Along the way, he enlists the unwitting help of Daniel, one of his ex-con employees (Jon Bernthal of TV’s “The Walking Dead”), who has been trying to stay on the straight and narrow with his wife and young son after serving “just over a nickel” for one of his two convictions. Daniel’s return to his old ways so soon after seeking redemption is almost heartbreaking, and in some ways a more weighted performance than Johnson’s. The theme of what a man is willing to do for his family is key to every major character in “Snitch,” even down to the cartel drug runner (played by Benjamin Bratt) Matthews’ trail eventually leads to.
Johnson may still be a ways from any Oscar consideration, but it is impressive to see him stretching beyond simple typecasting as the 21st century heir to the Stallone/Schwarzenegger legacy. His imposing frame almost distracts from his performance, as you keep expecting him to bust loose on the bad guys. But instead, Johnson behaves like a man in his position probably would: frightened and cautious.
It takes awhile for the action sequences in “Snitch” to offer payoff for the building tension, but when they do, they aren’t obligatory, and they carry more meaning. That may also be why they feel so much more realistic, in spite of an exploding car or two.
The supporting cast is a who’s-who of familiar TV faces. Michael Kenneth Williams of “The Wire” is the local drug runner with cartel ties, Nadine Velazquez of “My Name is Earl” plays Matthews’ second wife, and even Harold Perrineau of ABC’s “Lost” turns up as part of Susan Sarandon’s campaign entourage.
For a film this intense and dark, “Snitch” is surprisingly thin on objectionable content. There is some profanity, but it is kept in the PG-13 range and is absent of any uses of the f-word. There is no sexual content to be found, and the violence is largely bloodless. “Snitch’s” occasional shaky cam might be more offensive to viewers than anything else. If you are looking for adult tone without R-rated content, this could be your candidate.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College and appears regularly on the KJZZ "Movie Show." You can see more of his work at www.woundedmosquito.com.