By Gary Dowell
Despite what the commercials would have you believe, Dwayne Johnson’s crime drama Snitch is not an action extravaganza; rather, Johnson, director Ric Roman Waugh (Felon), and co-screenwriter Justin Haythe (Revolutionary Road, The Clearing) have created a slow-burning character drama that ditches the tired fantasy of a righteous one-man army single-handedly righting a litany of wrongs after pummeling a battalion of generic bad guys in favor of a more serious look at one man wading eyeball-deep into a world of danger in order to save someone he cares about.
Waugh and Haythe’s script is based in part on a Frontline report on the federal government’s mandatory minimum sentencing laws designed to encourage low-level drug dealers into giving up bigger fish in exchange for reduced sentences. To date, the process has nabbed mostly low-level, first-time, non-violent offenders and saddled them with lengthy prison sentences.
Such is the situation that 18-year-old Jason Collins (Rafi Gavron) finds himself in when he foolishly accepts delivery of a box of Ecstasy as a favor for a friend. Jason doesn’t have anyone to throw to the authorities in turn, and wouldn’t rat on them if he did, leaving him looking down the barrel of ten years in a federal penitentiary.
In the movie’s only real leap in logic, the boy’s estranged father, John Matthews (Johnson), the law-abiding owner of a construction company, works out a deal with a politically opportunistic US Attorney Keeghan (Susan Sarandon): In exchange for his son’s release, Matthews will take it upon himself to set-up a drug deal that will nab some major players. (Far-fetched? Sure; but the story is based on such a case.)
Once the ball is rolling, Waugh and Haythe apply the pressure to Matthews and never let up. The Rock’s physique and no-nonsense bearing only get him so far here, as it made quite clear that Matthews is an average man out of his element as he tries to navigate a world he knows nothing about. How he goes about it is as
questionable as it is intriguing, as Matthews pressures one of his employees, Daniel Cruz (Jon Bernthal, The Walking Dead) into arranging a meet with a local dealer, Malik (Michael Kenneth Williams, unforgettable as The Wire‘s charismatic, cold-blooded Omar Little). Cruz has two strikes under his belt, as well as a son and wife he’s eager to provide for. It’s unsettling to watch Matthews manipulate Cruz, knowing full well he could get the man killed or incarcerated for life.
Cruz nevertheless relents and arranges an introduction, which gets Matthews in deeper than he intended when their arrangement with Malik eventually draws out a high-ranking cartel member called El Topo (Benjamin Bratt), a target neither Keeghan nor ambitious DEA agent Cooper (Barry Pepper) can resist.
Sure, it’s hackneyed stuff, but Waugh and Haythe play it mostly low-key, and it quickly becomes fascinating to watch everyone manipulate one another with little hesitation. Matthews doesn’t hesitate to put Cruz in a compromising position; both are a means to an end for Malik and El Topo; and all of them are election fodder for the politically ambitious Keeghan. It plays out well as watchable pulp, thanks primarily to its cast. Johnson displays more range than he normally gets to, and wisely shoots for subtlety. He’s buoyed by a stellar supporting cast, too: The movie is a revelation for those of us who only know Bernthal from The Walking Dead; Pepper’s turn as the weary, soulful agent Cooper makes us wonder where’s been hiding lately; and Sarandon plays hard-nosed so well it’s almost erotic.
Waugh doesn’t lay it on thick with the token action sequences — ironic, given his past as a stuntman — and does his best to stay true the story and its characters, though his pacing is often uneven. He and Haythe stretch their premise to accommodate at least a small degree of audience expectations, thankfully without dumbing it down in the process.