With Dwayne Johnson, Barry Pepper, Jon Bernthal, Susan Sarandon, Michael Kenneth Williams. Written by Justin Haythe and Ric Roman Waugh. Directed by Ric Roman Waugh. Rated PG-13 for drug content and sequences of violence. 112 minutes.
Can Dwayne Johnson break the curse that has fallen upon action films this season? New movies by Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jason Statham, and Sylvester Stallone flopped while Bruce Willis’s “A Good Day to Die Hard” made “only” $35 million last weekend amidst a flurry of terrible reviews. SNITCH is a perfectly serviceable action movie and Johnson continues to take chances as an actor. He may not be doing “Hamlet” any time soon, but he keeps trying to stretch himself, which may be why he is the most interesting of the current action stars.
“Snitch” is “inspired by a true story,” which means we shouldn’t believe any of the details of the characters or plot. What’s true – and what works best at making the film interesting – is that it exposes our morally and intellectually bankrupt “war on drugs.” Johnson plays Jon Matthews, owner of a successful trucking firm in Missouri. His complacent life is shaken up when his son (Rafi Gavron) from his first marriage is caught in a sting by the Drug Enforcement Administration. The high school senior reluctantly agreed to hold a package of Ecstasy for a friend, not realizing that the friend had set him up as part of his own plea bargain. Now the boy has to be willing to set up his own friends or face a mandatory minimum of 10 years in prison. Indeed, because of the quantity involved it could be up to 30 years.
When the boy refuses to do to his classmates what was done to him, Jon goes to the local U.S. Attorney Joanne Keeghan (Susan Sarandon) and tries to negotiate. He will help her catch real drug dealers if his efforts will get his boy out of jail. She’s running for Congress and coldly tells him that the law is the law, but when he gets Daniel (Jon Bernthal), an ex-con employee, to connect him with a local drug dealer (Michael Kenneth Williams playing a variation of his role on “The Wire”), she’s willing to make a deal. Then it gets complicated.
The problem with the story is that it’s too complicated for its own good. The bad guys include the local dealers and a Mexican drug cartel. The good guys include Jon’s ex-wife and son and his second wife and daughter, plus Daniel and his wife and son. We don’t really like the heartless U.S. Attorney and the lead DEA agent (Barry Pepper) sends out mixed signals. What works is the notion that an ordinary citizen caught up in this system is screwed. Jon and his son are at the mercy of others, and it’s hard to see how they can come out of it alive.
That’s where the movie gets absurd, with a third act in which Jon tries to outwit everyone leading to chases, shootings, and explosions. Had other recent action films been hits one might say that the filmmakers are giving the audience what they want but it seems pretty clear now that audiences are not buying this sort of contrived climax, at least for the moment. The movie ends with a reminder about how messed up our drug laws are, and if that gets people talking that will be a good thing.
Alas, while “Snitch” has good intentions, it seems to be another movie paving the way to hell’s Octoplex.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His first novel, Shh! It’s A Secret: A Novel About Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide has just been released. He teaches at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.