"Snitch" Misses Target By Wide Margin

The ineptly titled “Snitch,” Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s latest go-round as a leading man, gives the star his most serious turn yet. Instead of muscles, it’s his acting chops that are flexed, and the film tackles a very weighty issue – mandatory minimum sentencing in first time drug offenses. But while Johnson’s screen presence remains affable, the picture stumbles out of the gate, dousing itself in melodrama and hackneyed line readings. The first act is entirely worthless and the exposition is worthy of all the eye-rolls it might evoke. Yet, that it becomes watchable at all is a testament to Johnson’s screen presence and a couple of solid supporting performances.

“The Rock” stars as John Matthews, a successful, blue-collar business owner and father of two. When Jason, John’s oldest son (by his ex-wife), hesitantly accepts a shipment of drugs from his best friend, Jason is taken down by the DEA and faces a lengthy prison sentence. Instead of standing by while his ostensibly upstanding son serves hard time, Matthews decides to do what his kid can’t – give the DEA other drug dealers to reduce Jason’s prison sentence.

The banality of the set-up can’t be understated. The dialogue is consistently boilerplate, revealing nothing about its characters or their motivations. At the 30-minute mark, I was convinced that the picture was enveloping itself in a made-for-TV sheen, either out of laziness or uncertainty. It’s not until Jon Bernthal (“The Walking Dead”) and Michael K. Williams (“The Wire”) show up that the film becomes something more substantive.

Bernthal plays Daniel James, an ex-con working for Matthews. James is the most interesting character in the entire piece as he, not Matthews, has the most to lose. James has recently turned his life around for the benefit of his young family, but Matthews monetarily strong-arms him into introducing him to a drug dealer. That dealer, Malik, is played by Williams, who brings his usual synthesis of charm and gruffness to the role. The tango between these two characters is far more interesting than anything else the picture has to offer, and it would have made for a stronger “A story” than the drama between Matthews and his son.

It’s clear from the beginning that John and Jason are not close and their onscreen interaction is limited, so the former’s life-endangering antics aren’t as believable or affecting as they could be. The primary narrative thread boils down to the idea that “that’s what fathers do,” which isn’t terribly original or exciting.

Joining in on the mediocrity is Susan Sarandon (as a DA), Barry Pepper (as a DEA agent), and Benjamin Bratt (as the leader of a drug cartel). Pepper fares the best of the bunch, while Sarandon and Bratt make little impact in limited screen time.

The film is more drama than action, and the pacing suffers as a result. In turn, the depth of the material isn’t enough to justify the lengthy running time, and the third act is almost as clumsy as the first. Even when the big action scenes do turn up, they’re poorly edited, which is something of a surprise as the director and co-writer, Ric Roman Waugh, has a long history as a stunt coordinator.

“Snitch” is passable thanks to a sturdy second act and a decent performance by Dwayne Johnson, but it’s never captivating, which should be a requirement of all “message movies.” The message is lost in a sea self-seriousness and melodrama, and the screenplay is too rickety to support any meaningful commentary on drug-related crimes. The best thing to be said about “Snitch” is that it gets better as it rolls along – a commendable trait, regardless of its other shortcomings.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: February 22, 2013
Studio: Summit Entertainment (Lionsgate)
Director: Ric Roman Waugh
Screenwriter: Justin Haythe, Ric Roman Waugh
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Susan Sarandon, Benjamin Bratt, Barry Pepper, Jon Bernthal, Michael Kenneth Williams, Nadine Velazquez, Melina Kanakaredes, Lela Loren, Harold Perrineau, Rafi Gavron
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for drug content and sequences of violence)