112 min., rated PG-13.
Veiled as an important, hard-hitting Issues Pic or maybe a father-son drama, "Snitch" has all the trappings and marketing of a one-man-army action thriller with "The Rock" opening cans of whup-ass. In actuality, the film only scratches the surface of the formers and, in the realm of the latter, only has a couple of action sequences, one in which the muscular star fires a shotgun while driving a big rig. Instead of killing two birds with one stone, "Snitch" is just doubly disappointing; it's gritty and not completely mindless but too often repetitive and dreary.
Dwayne Johnson, who insists on nixing "The Rock" moniker to build credibility as an actor, plays John Matthews, the owner of a Missouri construction/trucking business who is divorced but remarried with a young daughter. His 18-year-old son Jason (well played by Rafi Gavron), from his previous marriage with Sylvie (Melina Kanakaredes), is encouraged by his best friend to accept a box of Ecstasy that gets shipped and delivered at his house, only to be immediately busted by a DEA sting and arrested for drug distribution. It turns out his "friend" ratted him out; kids, these days. As a first-time non-violent drug offender, Jason can reduce his federal mandatory sentence of ten to thirty years if he snitches on someone else involved in drugs but won't do it. Determined to help his son but being the clean-cut family man and law-abiding citizen that he is, John makes an emotional appeal to conservative, straight-shooting U.S. D.A. Joanne Keeghan (Susan Sarandon), who tells him that his son will be set free if he goes undercover within a drug cartel and makes arrests. So, he asks for an introduction into the drug world by one of his workers, Daniel James (Jon Bernthal), who was twice convicted for narcotics. He's between a rock and a hard place, getting involved with a drug cartel headed by "The Mole," Juan Carlos 'El Topo' Pintera (Benjamin Bratt).
From a script "inspired by true events," written by Justin Haythe ("Revolutionary Road") and stuntman-turned-director Ric Roman Waugh, "Snitch" is a gravely serious crime drama with stakes and, thankfully, no implausible, tagged-on plot twists. But, once it gets into the doings of taking down a drug cartel, the film somewhat throws Jason's conflict to the backseat, growing morally murky, cumbersome in its pacing, and slight in its emotional catharsis. The cinematography can be effective but it's mostly of the wobbly variety with as much shaking as someone with the symptoms of Parkinson's. Also, Antonio Pinto's melodramatic, manipulative score during phone time between an orange-jumpsuited Jason and his father undercuts the drama.
As John Matthews, Johnson won't strike anyone as an everyman who can get kicked to the ground by a group of punks. In a different, more action-oriented movie, there'd be no reason to place our bets on the kingpins, but in a role that doesn't require him to bulge his biceps or push out his pecs, Johnson makes it work. Bernthal (AMC's "The Walking Dead") gives a credible, sympathetic portrayal of a former ex-con who has a family of his own, and, always adding color to a film, Barry Pepper has a juicy role as a DEA agent with an absurd Fu Manchu goatee that nobody ever comments on. Sarandon either fits her character like a glove or doesn't look like she wants to be there. Stuck playing stereotypical drug dealers are Michael K. Williams (who's at least convincing) and Bratt (who's not so convincing). Finally, the remaining women (Kanakaredes and Nadine Velazquez, playing John's ex and present wives, and Lela Loren as Daniel's wife) are mostly left by the wayside to act worried.
Clearly, "Snitch" wants to say something about the unfairness of the drug laws (the minimum sentencing for drug offenders is longer than those who commit rape, child molestation, bank robbery and manslaughter) and it'd be a lie to not call the subject matter compelling. There is a film to be made about America's War on Drugs, but it was already made thirteen years ago by Steven Soderbergh and it's called "Traffic." It's also way more interesting than "Snitch," so keep moving, folks; there is nothing to see here.