One of Hollywood’s longest running truisms is that studios use the early months of the year to dump their less desirable movies into theaters (despite the occasional exception, like Cloverfield or The Grey), so when an action film is released in February, audiences can typically assume it won’t be very good. But here’s the thing about Snitch: it’s actually surprisingly solid, and despite the star power of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, it’s much less of a pure action movie than the trailers would have you believe.
Inspired by true events, the story follows John Matthews (Johnson), a well-off construction site owner who has a strained relationship with his ex-wife and their teenage son Jason, but has formed a happy life with his new wife and their young daughter. Jason seems to be a decent kid, but in the opening scene it’s revealed that he’s experimenting with drugs and a friend plans to ship him a big supply that’s worth a lot of money. Despite Jason’s protests, his buddy sends the drugs anyway, and after a quick chase sequence, Jason is busted by the DEA for intent to distribute narcotics. Turns out the friend set him up to take the fall in order to reduce his own prison sentence, and the DEA wants Jason to set up another domino so they can continue their war on drugs.
When Jason refuses to play ball, lawyers say he could serve between ten and thirty years in prison, so Matthews offers to step in and become a snitch instead. The incredulous U.S. Attorney (Susan Sarandon) reluctantly agrees, passing Matthews off to her DEA team led by Agent Cooper (Barry Pepper, sporting a majestic goatee). Since Matthews owns a truck yard that employs some questionable characters, he runs through his employee records until he locates Daniel James (“The Walking Dead” star Jon Bernthal), an ex-con conveniently busted for distributing narcotics, and enlists him to set up a meet with a local drug dealer (“The Wire” star Michael Kenneth Williams). Things eventually move so far up the ladder that Matthews finds himself in way over his head, dodging bullets and driving mega-sized shipments for a cartel leader (Benjamin Bratt) and continually having to go a step further for the greedy U.S. Attorney, who keeps backing out of her promise to release Jason when she realizes she has the opportunity to bag a cartel leader instead of a low-level player.
Director Ric Roman Waugh is a former Hollywood stuntman who doesn’t exactly have a famed directorial history, but it’s clear that Mr. Waugh spent enough time hurling himself around in front of cameras that he learned how to effectively tell a story. The action beats are surprisingly few and far between, but when they do arrive, they’re competently orchestrated and pack a punch. I don’t want to hype the film too much – after all, there is a scene in which a car catches on fire when it ramps off a freeway exit – but a lot of traditional “action movie” moments are minimized in favor of building relationships, so that those action beats actually have a tangible impact on the story at hand. Thankfully, this is not “explosions for explosions’ sake” filmmaking, and the movie often feels much more restrained than expected. It’s more family drama than shoot-em-up, and though a lot of the family moments lean toward hysteria – both between Matthews and his wife, and between James and his wife, who is crushed when she discovers he’s no longer on the straight and narrow – I’d much prefer that to excessive action sequences that don’t mean anything.
The entire movie is made as a condemnation of harsh real life mandatory minimum sentencing laws, which are put in place to crack down on drug trafficking and the violence that is associated with that business. But the movie seems to undercut its own point slightly: yes, it sucks that Jason was busted, but after watching Matthews go through hell to free him, we’re subject to the entire way of life that those rules are in place to cripple. When Benjamin Bratt jumps out of the backseat of a sedan and starts blowing guys away with a huge gun during a construction site shootout, it’s tough to argue that the world wouldn’t be a safer place without these punks on the street.
No thanks to the stilted script, Snitch is far more entertaining than it should be and coasts on the talent of its leads. Johnson gives a strong performance in one of the few roles that doesn’t require him to remove his shirt, Bernthal (who I found tremendously annoying in “The Walking Dead’s” first season) did some great work as the reluctant cohort, and anyone who has seen “The Wire” knows what they’re getting when Michael Kenneth Williams appears on screen. Sarandon, Pepper, and Bratt all add considerable substance, and while Snitch is overall more emotional than explosive, it’s a better film than its February release date would indicate. Until next time…