Dir: Ric Roman Waugh
Dwayne Johnson, the artist formerly known as The Rock, has almost supernatural charisma. There’s an undeniable movie star quality to the guy, and I enjoy his work because he’s such a magnetic and fun presence. However, he’s not exactly stretched himself as an actor so far. Snitch seems to be the first step in doing that.
Johnson plays John Matthews; a trucker whose estranged 18 year old son, Jason (Rafi Gavron) is set up by his friend and arrested in a drug bust. Because of the US mandatory minimum laws for drug offences Matthews’ son is now facing ten years in prison. Desperate to help his son, he begs the prosecutor (Susan Sarandon) to allow him to go undercover and help her make a bigger case so that Jason can get a deal and be released from prison. Eventually he gets ex-con employee Daniel (Jon Bernthal) to introduce him, and he goes undercover as a transport man for a cartel
On the one hand you have to have some admiration for Snitch. Director Ric Roman Waugh and his co-writer Justin Haythe clearly have something to say, something they feel quite passionate about, and they do take their time, allowing the plot to develop with a little more patience, a little more accent on characters, than you typically find in a wide release, relatively mainstream, film these days. However, this isn’t to say that the approach they take is unproblematic, far from it in fact. Mandatory minimums are, from what I know about them, something that I don’t agree with, something that seems to do more harm than good, and they certainly deserve to be discussed in cinema, but sadly Haythe and Roman Waugh’s screenplay paints in bold colours and broad brushstrokes when it comes to its issues and its politics (though points, I suppose, for the mildly subversive casting of Sarandon as a conservative prosecutor).
The same is true of the character development. The film takes some time to fill in a little detail on Matthews and on Daniel and their families, to give the story a little more weight. The problem is that it only scratches the surface of these things and, again, speaks largely in broad strokes and cliches. There are interesting conflicts here, good scenes to be had, but most of the time they just peter out.
On the plus side, Snitch has an interesting cast who do mean that it’s not just marking time between the two main action scenes. Barry Pepper is good as Matthews’ DEA handler and Michael Kenneth Williams effective as ever as the first dealer that Matthews works for, while Jon Bernthal makes something of Daniel’s cliche arc. Of the supporting cast only Sarandon lets the side down, sleepwalking through her scenes and seeming to let the irony of her casting, rather than her actual performance, do the heavy lifting. Dwayne Johnson works hard, and he just about holds his own in the dramatic scenes, but he’s not up to the role yet. There’s an earnest emotion in Johnson’s scenes with Rafi Gavron, and he convinces you of the force of Matthews’ sense of a mission in helping his son, but a lot of the time it does feel like he’s acting, you can see the effort, and while it’s admirable it’s also the problem.
Continuing the ‘nice try’ theme that seems to dog Snitch, the set pieces; two potential drug busts, have their ups and downs. Ten years ago, this film would have been a 15 (actually, given the shot of Johnson being forced to snort coke, I’m surprised it isn’t). The higher rating would definitely have helped with the action, because the way of avoiding a higher certificate now is to shoot any action scene with a restless camera and editing style that never really lets you see much beyond random images, making sure to quickly pan away from any consequences, beyond a minor cut or bruise. In the early going, Snitch seems to want to evoke a 70′s style of undercover story, but the violence is where the film’s modernity comes back to bite it. It’s a pity, because the action is easy to get invested in; there’s real purpose behind it and whatever the problems with his performance you completely invest in Johnson, but the style ultimately works against the film.
Ultimately, Snitch is not so much a bad movie as it is one that just doesn’t quite achieve its goals. You can see what it’s shooting for, even admire what it wants to do, but the politics are too simplistic and the drama a bit too thin and familiar. For Dwayne Johnson it’s not ruinous, just a first step towards doing proper dramatic work, I suspect he’ll get a lot better at it.