It’s some kind of bravery to cast Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in what is, by all accounts, a Taken-like “save my family” paternal masturbation action fantasy, and never have the guy swing a single punch. Doubly brave is for director Ric Roman Waugh to frame said action story around a politically-bent situation that is perfectly cold, simple, and infuriating to launch a blue-collar guy down a dangerous path of vigilantism, and yet never bring out any real latent badassery in his hero. This is most certainly not Taken- a film in which you can almost feel the glee from Neeson’s character when he gets a chance to apply his infinite spy skills to the task of reuniting an ungrateful family. No, here John Matthews relies on basic cunning and bravery to make his way through the cartel drug underworld with a plan that seems sure to collapse at any moment. And thus Snitch stands apart from other films of its ilk, even if its marbled with issues in the script and filmmaking, and ultimately has a serious identity problem.
As much as it is an action movie, Snitch is a statement resoundingly against our current system of prosecution for drug-related crimes. It lashes out by putting the terribly likeable, successful job creator John Matthews in an impossible situation, one in which infiltrating drug cartels has a better chance of success than navigating legal bureaucracy. John’s son Jason is a good kid that makes a bad decision, and when he agrees to let a pill-pushing friend of his have a fat package of product delivered to his house, he gets wrapped up in a federal sentencing program that forces him into a 10+ year prison term unless he digs up another friend to entrap in the same setup. The film boils down what is surely a more complex situation into something cold and absolutely maddening, all pinned on Susan Sarandon’s federal attorney character, who happens to be running for the senate. A few illogical (though apparently true) turns later and John is enlisting the help of an ex-con employee of his construction/trucking company and ends up dealing with one of the biggest Mexican cartel leaders, while overseen by Barry Pepper’s unrecognizably-bearded DEA agent (one has to assume he grows his crazy front rat-tail and wears nothing but sock hats so he can ditch both if he ever gets made, and boy would it work).
The most consistent and solid element here is Dwayne Johnson himself. Here Johnson more than proves he’s better than just a cocked fist and a mythic frame, but has developed real dramatic chops. He is perhaps the uber-divorcee: successful and loving with his new family, patient and caring for the family he only lost because he was working so damn hard for them. Naturally his ex-wife is just aggressive enough that you never question Matthew’s perspective, though the two share genuine, touching moments as frustrated, hopeless parents. Even more surprising is the fear that runs through Johnson’s performance- here a gun is more than enough to tame a man that, in any other film, would have no problems obliterating every character he meets, armed or not. It’s a satisfying, mature turn from the performer- one that reinvigorates your faith that this guy is the real deal, and that a decade ago he should have had the career he’s just now getting.
In absolute terms, the dramatic tale this film tells us is exciting and satisfying, but the problem is that Waugh keeps trying to tell us this is an action movie, when it’s clearly not. Eye-grating handheld camerawork and frenetic pacing set a tone right from the start as even Jason pitifully running from the cops becomes a messy, shakeycam fence-hopping sequence. All throughout the film it seems an action beat is going to break out at any minute, and yet it rarely pays off. The aforementioned scene of Jason running away joins maybe one other action sequence before the big finale.
At this story’s heart is a crime thriller with Matthews plunging himself into a world he has to research on Wikipedia to know anything about, and yet constantly the film is coding itself as an action movie. It’s frustrating on a visceral level and it also lets the air out of the film’s tires on several occasions, as it’s moving too fast to actually use all the threads it has in play. When you only realize the big action scene you just watched is the film’s climax after it’s already over and movie is wrapping up, there’s a serious problem. When a big deal is made about Jason’s connection with John being kept a secret in the prison records, and the Cartel discovering the connection turns out to mean nothing, there’s a serious problem. When the cartel is in fact so vaguely menacing that it’s never more scary than some big guns and scowling faces, there’s problem. In fact, I’d suggest there’s a good 10-15 minutes of script missing here that, if Waugh wanted this to be an action movie, were absolutely essential.
If there’s any unimpeachable characteristic of the film, it’s the cast. Few of these characters are written with much dimension, but Sarandon, Pepper, and Benjamin Bratt all make a memorable impression from meager ingredients. Jon Bernthal melts into Daniel, the hard-working two timer who never has anything but his family in his mind, but was clearly put on this earth for the rough stuff. And finally Michael K. Williams takes on the minor-league drug lord role that he’s already transcended half a dozen times before, and here he’s no less successful. Though working with dialogue that no deep-hood drug lord would ever say, the vulnerability and undercurrent of fear running through his performance reads vividly.
Along with the strong performances throughout, what keeps this from being a total mess is the emotional theme running consistently through the film, motivating each major character. This is a film about fatherhood, and the decisions a man will make for his children’s sake, whether he’s a two-time ex-con, a cartel lord, or an everyday guy. This film is about how profoundly warped our justice system has become, and what sort of Gordian knots we’re tying for ourselves by framing our fight against drugs as a by-any-means-necessary war. It has very little subtlety to offer on these subjects, but it’s honest and specific enough to drive the film. It’s just not enough to save it from the severe miscalculation in the genre approach. This should be a thriller- it should be a pot-boiler tale of a guy getting deeper and deeper in over his head, with the danger and stakes ramping up with every step. Instead the script and direction force it into a cheap action-movie template, as if Waugh welded a Porche’s body onto one of John’s big Mack trucks. Sure, all the parts are high-quality, but the result is awkward, looks dumb, and nothing works quite like it should. A uniquely potent premise keeps it moving and strong work from Johnson and the cast get it across the finish line, but too much potential is squandered not to walk away from this one unsatisfied.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars