From Friday’s Weekend Look section of The Oklahoman. 2 1/2 of 4 stars.
Despite the adrenaline-pumping shootouts and bone-crunching car chases, “Snitch” is actually an issue movie cleverly disguised as a typical Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson action vehicle.
That’s not a complaint, but the latest project from stuntman-turned-director Ric Roman Waugh (2008’s “Felon”) valiantly attempts to serve two masters and manages to come up a bit short in both genres.
Inspired by a segment from the PBS investigative series “Frontline,” “Snitch” is cagily designed to get moviegoers who would probably never watch “Frontline” or Eugene Jarecki’s acclaimed documentary “The House I Live In” talking about the high human cost of the war on drugs.
Rather than playing one of his usual indestructible action heroes, Johnson stars as John Matthews, a blue-collar businessman who has shifted from driving big rigs to running his own construction and shipping company. He and his second wife Analisa (Nadine Velazquez) are happily hosting a birthday bash for their young daughter when he gets a frantic phone call from his resentful ex-wife Sylvie (Melina Kanakaredes).
John is shocked to learn that his college-bound 18-year-old son Jason (Rafi Gavron) has been arrested for dealing drugs. The teenager didn’t actually sell anything; Jason stupidly bowed to pressure from his best pal to sign for a package containing Ecstasy. Due to the massive number of pills in the box, however, Jason is snared under federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws designed to put away major drug traffickers.
The first-time offender is suddenly facing 10 to 30 years in prison, unless he can offer information that leads to the prosecution of another drug dealer. The problem is Jason doesn’t know any besides the friend they’ve already arrested, and even if he did, he angrily vows, he wouldn’t set up someone like his so-called buddy did to him.
Desperate to save his son and fueled by post-divorce guilt, John makes a deal with ambitious U.S. Attorney Joanne Keeghan (Susan Sarandon): He will work as an informant, and if he can help bring down at least one big-time drug dealer, she will drastically reduce his son’s sentence.
Under the shrewd eye of undercover Agent Cooper (Barry Pepper), John pressures one of his employees, Daniel James (“The Walking Dead’s” Jon Bernthal), a two-time ex-con desperately trying to stay straight for the sake of his own son, to introduce him to known drug runner Malik (Michael Kenneth Williams).
Claiming that the bad economy has slashed his company’s bottom line, John offers a deal to transport “product” in his 18-wheelers. It’s clear from the moment he meets the fiercely suspicious Malik that the businessman may be a beefy guy but he’s clearly out of his depth amongst hardened criminals. After a tense face-off, though, Malik agrees to let John make a test run down to the Mexican border, as long as Daniel rides shotgun.
Once the bullets start flying, John proves cool enough under fire to attract the attention of Malik’s supplier, Mexican kingpin Juan Carlos (Benjamin Bratt). And Keeghan, a Congressional hopeful looking for a big bust to put her ahead in the campaign, pushes John to take ever-bigger risks in his quest to free his son.
The first action set piece doesn’t arrive until the halfway point of “Snitch,” which may try the patience of moviegoers who just want the cinematic thrill of watching The Rock taking it to some bad guys. But Waugh brings a hard-hitting, old-school veracity to the sequences, particularly a rousing chase that puts John behind the wheel of a speeding tractor-trailer.
Johnson, who also is a producer on “Snitch,” handles the action scenes with familiar ease and capably conveys his character’s fatherly desperation and determination. But he struggles to convincingly deliver some of the expository dialogue, which is clunkier than it ought to be anyway.
More surprising and disappointing is Sarandon’s flat and one-dimensional performance; instead of elevating the work of the less-talented actors around her, the Oscar winner phones in her supporting turn as a politician who directly benefits from the mandatory sentencing laws.
Waugh finishes the film with some sobering facts about mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenses compared to other violent crimes that should at least get people thinking. And thinking, even when you’re catching an action flick, is good.