In “Snitch,” a parent’s valiant effort to help his son has a sobering message underneath its action-movie surface — and behind the marquee power of its muscle-bound leading man.
Dwayne Johnson, the former pro wrestler sometimes still known as The Rock, stars as John Matthews, the owner of a big-rig transportation company whose 18-year-old son, Jason (Rafi Gavron), goes to prison after accepting delivery of a large amount of the drug ecstasy from one of his friends, who has cooperated with federal agents to set Jason up in a raid.
Sentenced under rigid federal “mandatory minimum” laws, Jason’s only possible way to lighten his prescribed 10-to-30-year sentence is to help the Feds ensnare other drug buyers. Refusing to become a “snitch,” and not really having anyone to snitch on, Jason must accept the grim reality of his prison term, much to the horror of his parents.
His dad, however, has other ideas, setting up an appointment with the local U.S. District Attorney (Susan Sarandon) with a proposal: If the son can’t snitch, maybe the father can. John offers to go undercover to reel in a “big fish” for the Feds in exchange for reducing his son’s prison sentence.
If that sounds like a typically preposterous, unbelievably over-the-top, only-in-Hollywood idea for another slam-bang action movie, consider this: It really happened — at least partially. “Snitch” is based on a true incident, chronicled in a 1999 episode, also titled “Snitch,” of the acclaimed PBS documentary series “Frontline.”
As you’d probably expect, the movie does put a great deal of good ol’ Hollywood spin on the tale, including an ending that, unfortunately, didn’t happen in the actual case.
Through one of his company’s employees, the ex-con Daniel (Jon Bernthal, of “The Walking Dead”), John hooks up with the local drug-thug kingpin (Michael Kenneth Williams, of “Boardwalk Empire”), promising him smooth interstate sailing for his goods on his company’s rigs. Soon he’s connected with El Topo (Benjamin Bratt), the notorious leader of the Mexican cartel at the head of pipeline feeding into his hometown hub of Jefferson City.
Though it all leads to shootouts and a slam-bang highway conflagration, “Snitch” is much less action-y than you’d likely expect for a movie headlined by an actor known for action movies. (If you’re disappointed, don’t worry: The Rock’s next flick, “G.I. Joe: Retaliation,” coming March 28, will be more of a return to form.)
Instead of nonstop gunfire and explosions, we get a much more tense, taut, thrilling — and sometimes even touching — exercise in just how far a father, an everyday guy (albeit one who happens to be built like The Rock), is willing to go for his son. Johnson’s character is never cocky, sometimes frightened and frustrated, and ever aware that he’s in a secretive situation that’s extremely dangerous and even deadly — but also one that is his only recourse to help his son.
The drama is well-played all around, especially in the subplot of John’s ex-con employee, Daniel, a father himself also trying to do the right thing for his own young son by trying to stay away from a criminal past that John desperately needs him to re-enter. Barry Pepper plays the federal agent working with John to bring down El Topo, secretly worrying that the trucking businessman is “way out of his depth” and “if he crosses that border” into Mexico, “he’s never coming back.”
The movie, like the PBS documentary from which it took its inspiration, hopes to stir audiences to question the government’s mandatory sentencing laws, under which small-time offenders are sent to already overcrowded prisons for lengthy, perhaps unjustly harsh terms — and which perpetuate the cycle of snitching by which relatively nonviolent “fish” are easily snared while bigger, more dangerous predators continue to swim free.
And as for Dwayne Johnson, “Snitch” shows that The Rock can indeed flex his acting chops beyond doofus comedies and brainless brawn if given the opportunity. Here’s hoping he gets more of them.
IF YOU GO
STARRING: Dwayne Johnson and Susan Sarandon
DIRECTED BY: Ric Roman Waugh
RUNNING TIME: 112 minutes