Crime thrillers set against the world of narcotics don't usually question the wisdom of contemporary law enforcement. The screen is generally filled with vicious bad guys -- usually Hispanics in designer duds sporting flashy armaments -- and beleaguered, outgunned cops, not as sartorially splendid, Miami Vice notwithstanding.
Whatever its faults -- and there are a few -- the movie Snitch does dare to suggest the war on drugs exacts collateral damage well beyond the traditional combatants.
Jason (Rafi Gavron) is a teenage kid finagled into accepting a shipment of ecstasy pills from his best friend. The shipment comes with a platoon of DEA agents who promptly arrest him. He is suddenly looking at a 10-year mandatory minimum prison sentence, unless he can deliver the goods on an actual drug dealer.
Since he doesn't actually know any drug dealers, and refuses to set up any of his friends in the way he was set up, it looks like Jason is going to serve some hard time.
Enter Jason's estranged dad, John Matthews (Dwayne Johnson), a construction company owner desperate to save his son. John decides that if his son can't deliver a drug lord, he will. John makes a deal with the ruthlessly ambitious district attorney (Susan Sarandon) and a weedy DEA agent (Barry Pepper).
To gain entrance to the criminal underworld, he drafts the help of Daniel (Jon Bernthal), an unwitting ex-con in his employ, to provide an introduction to a prize drug dealer.
While desperate to leave his criminal past behind, Daniel agrees. But in carrying out this charade of a drug deal, they find themselves caught up with a bigger fish, a Mexican cartel boss (Benjamin Bratt) who proves to be irresistible to the DA.
John Matthews, regular guy, is now in well over his head.
The main problem with this scenario is that Dwayne Johnson does not pass as a regular anything. He has the pumped-up frame of a pro wrestler. And he has a CV filled with outsize action movies befitting his outsize action moves.
Johnson is admirably looking for a dramatic role that allows him to express something other than comic amazement (Race to Witch Mountain) or stern vengeance (Faster). Here, he gets to shed a manly tear and pretend to get beat up by some puny street hoodlums.
The problem is that he looks like Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, and he simply can't pass muster as an average Joe. His screen presence is constantly fighting the image of normalcy. You might as well cast Roger Rabbit in the role and call the movie Undercover Bunny.
Otherwise, director Ric Roman Waugh (who co-scripted with Justin Haythe) has fashioned a decent enough thriller that pointedly suggests the war on drugs is hopelessly compromised, corrupt and unwinnable.
If Johnson had switched roles with, say, Barry Pepper, Waugh might have actually sold the premise.
Selected excerpts of reviews of Snitch:
Waugh is more interested in inspirational melodrama and clumsy social commentary than inrousing action.
-- Josh Bell, Las Vegas Weekly
This movie executes two missions: A) to entertain us; and B) to put some big exclamation points on a couple of messages about certain drug laws in this country in need of a thorough re-examination.
-- Richard Roeper, Chicago Sun-Times
Designed to make empathetic citizens question the system, this strangely compelling issue pic plays less to auds' hearts than to their craving for testosterone...
-- Peter Debruge, Variety
A straight-no-digital-chaser actioner, with the most subtle Dwayne Johnson performance ever.
-- Roger Moore, Movie Nation
Starring Dwayne Johnson and Jon Bernthal
McGillivray, McGillivray VIP, Polo Park, St. Vital, Towne
21Ñ2 stars out of five