At first blush, writer/director Ric Roman Waugh’s action drama Snitch looks to be much heavier on the action part of that descriptor. If you go into the theater having glimpsed at the movie’s trailer, poster and clips, or if you just know that it stars Dwayne Johnson (Faster), you might be expecting just another fun but shallow B movie. Hopefully you’d be pleasantly surprised, like I was, to find a much more complex plot that raises the stakes for each of its fully-realized characters in a way that tests the viewer’s limits of believability without crashing through them, all while delivering on the promised action sequences. Hit the jump for my review of Snitch.
The plot of Snitch appears to be as straightforward as its title. Johnson stars as John Matthews, a successful yet hard-working owner of a construction company whose estranged son Jason (Rafi Gavron) lands in trouble with the law. It turns out that Jason’s friend sent him a rather large quantity of illegal drugs, which the DEA tracked to Jason’s house and busted him, citing possession with an intent to distribute. Because of the federal mandatory minimum sentences, Jason is looking at up to 30 years in jail unless he rolls on another one of his friends that does drugs, even if they’re only recreational users. Jason refuses to snitch, pushing his father to take some drastic measures in order to free him.
Here’s where the movie could have lost all believability as John makes a deal with the federal attorney Joanne Keeghan (Susan Sarandon), who agrees to cut down Jason’s sentence if John can bring her a legitimate drug dealer. Snitch toes the line of what’s realistic and even crosses it a number of times before hopping back over, but it’s never so much as to take you out of the film completely. After a near disastrous attempt at taking the law into his own hands, John enlists the help of Daniel James (Jon Bernthal) an ex-con with two strikes who has proven to be a hard worker at John’s company but still has ties to drug cartels. John then plays Daniel in order to grant DEA agent Cooper (Barry Pepper) a shot at the mid-level shot caller Malik (Michael Kenneth Williams) and, eventually the Mexican cartel leader known as El Topo (Benjamin Bratt). John’s scheme will put the lives of each of the men and their families in the cross-hairs, all for the sake of rescuing his son from prison.
Let me stress that this could have been another dumb, yet enjoyable actioner, but Waugh takes pains to stress the reality of this situation, something ordinary people everywhere in this country face on a daily occurrence. He does try to get this point across in a few heavy-handed scenes, such as the attorney Jay Price (David Harbour) laying the exposition on thick or Keeghan’s detached and cold interactions with John lacquered with false sympathies during her Congressional election campaign. I made a note that I was going to go home and check the validity of Waugh’s claims as per the penal code, but wait, there’s a scene in which he literally puts the documents front and center on the screen as John does research online. Thankfully, these preachy moments are few and far between; the film breathes much more freely after the first act.
Describing Snitch in a few words? “That escalated quickly!” Waugh establishes the conceit of the film in a well-paced manner before getting to the more action-oriented beats. He threads the up-tempo scenes into the story quite well, with a DEA rundown of Jason early on, an ill-conceived beat-down of John by some street thugs soon after and a number of gun fights, tense stand-offs and a climactic car/truck chase. These set pieces might not be totally novel, but they’re done in such a way as to fit organically in the flow of the story and still carry a sense of tension and dread for our protagonists.
What really surprised me about Snitch is the level of detail of not only John Matthews, but the supporting cast as well. Sarandon is actually among the weakest of the co-stars, given some cringe-worthy lines and one-dimensionality early on. She turns it around somewhat when it’s revealed that her thirst for power is beginning to outweigh her desire to serve the common man, which plays out in an ironic and nasty little scene. Pepper is great as the DEA agent who shepherds John along the way and eventually pulls him aside to warn him that he’s in over his head (that beard though…). Snitch is really pulled together by the characters lurking in the gray areas of morality: Malik, the mid-level drug dealer doing what he can to get by and El Topo, the ruthless cartel leader who also happens to be a family man. Williams edges out Bratt in screen time and performance, but El Topo just oozes machismo.
Bernthal was a fantastic casting decision for his role as James, the ex-con with the good heart who’s just trying to fly straight but keeps getting pulled back into the old life. His character goes through the same range of emotions that John does and Bernthal nails each one of them to the wall. He’s a hard-working guy who keeps his head down one minute and a fierce defender of his family the next. He goes from prison-yard shot-caller to care-giving father in an instant. Here’s hoping we see more of Bernthal in features to come.
At the end of the day, the star is Johnson. I’ll admit, I was even more convinced that Snitch would be a straight up actioner when I saw Johnson cast in the role, but I was pleasantly surprised to find him playing a toned-down family man pushed to the limit…most of the time. There’s no hiding his imposing physique, but his charisma made the character likable, believable, and most importantly, vulnerable. This is no superhero, even though Johnson is as close to one as you can get. He’s just a father out to do whatever he has to in order to save his son.
Snitch is definitely more in the vein of The Next Three Days than A Good Day to Die Hard and I’d say that it’s all the better for it. Except for a few stumbles in the dialogue department, Snitch packs a lot of action into a script full of heart, hardship and those impossible decisions made within life’s gray areas.