Monday, March 4, 2013

"Snitch" (2013)

Starring Dwayne Johnson, Jon Bernthal and Susan Sarandon
Written by Justin Haythe and Ric Roman Waugh
Directed by Ric Roman Waugh
Rated PG-13 - Violence, language, drug use
Running Time: 112 Minutes

John Matthews (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson) owns a trucking and construction business that he's trying to expand. His son from his first marriage, Jason (Rafi Gavron) accepts a package from a friend containing the party drug Ecstasy. But upon opening it, he discovers that the package is a dupe and DEA agents arrive to arrest him. Set up by his friend in exchange for a smaller sentence, Jason is now facing up to thirty years in prison if he doesn't also help the government set up other drug dealers. This is due to mandatory sentencing laws designed to break the back of drug distribution networks.

The problem is, Jason isn't a drug dealer and doesn't know any other dealers or even users, really. The only way to reduce his sentence, then, is to set up his friends on what would essentially be trumped up entrapment schemes for the government. Jason is unwilling to do that, so John volunteers to do it for him. He inks a deal with the prosecutor, congressional candidate Joanne Keeghan. One of his employees, Daniel James (John Bernthal) is an ex-con with two convictions for dealing narcotics. Reluctantly, in exchange for a large sum of money, Daniel introduces John to a major local player, Malik (Michael Kenneth Williams).

John and Daniel then go on a drug run for Malik to prove their plan can work. When the run is ambushed by a rival cartel, John and Daniel's actions escaping with the drug impress cartel bigwig Juan Carlos 'El Topo' Pintera (Benjamin Bratt) who decides to recruit them for a bigger run. When Keeghan learns this, she scrubs John's deal in the hopes of snagging a bigger fish, putting John and Daniel in danger.

"Snitch" is rather slower-paced than I was hoping it would be. This wouldn't be a problem if the script didn't feel so half-baked and superficial. There are no surprises in "Snitch," you'll pretty much always be a couple scenes ahead of the script at all times. That the movie succeeds at all is because of the performances of its cast, who seem to be acting in a much better movie than this one actually is.

Dwayne Johnson can certainly carry a movie; he's done it before, but mostly in brawny action roles. Here, he's asked to play an everyman father. His performance isn't really the issue... it's the fact that Johnson is one of the biggest human beings ever. He, frankly, looks kind of awkward sitting behind a desk in a shirt and tie making phone calls and schmoozing with businessmen. His line readings are equally out of place, as though Johnson himself can tell that this isn't working. But when he's out in the field, driving the trucks or pushing through the film's few-and-far-between action sequences, he's fine, though not extraordinary. Johnson is great when he's playing action heroes with a bit of a wink or a bit of a mean streak, but as a regular guy... something just doesn't feel right.

Susan Sarandon slums it as the greedy prosecutor, but actually manages to give the best performance in the entire film. At first you think Keeghan might actually just be hard on drugs, but she's really just interested in winning above all else, and sees John's case as just a way to bolster her campaign. Even when John's life is in danger, all she can see is the headlines that she spearheaded a major anti-drug operation that could cripple one of the big cartels. Her DEA liaison, Agent Cooper (Barry Pepper) seems increasingly concerned with how willing she is to put John in danger. Pepper also does a solid job in this role, though it's fairly minimal.

Jon Bernthal, late of "The Walking Dead" fame, also puts in fine work as Daniel James. For much of the film, Daniel seems to be taking a back seat to all the other stuff going on, even when he's the one who has a more interesting story to tell. As a two-strike felon, one more conviction will send him away forever. He's made a promise not just to himself but to his wife and child to reform, no matter how difficult it may be. Yet, he puts himself into this position to help John... who never informs him that he's actually working for the cops until it's almost too late.

The film holds off almost all of its action for the second half, and then only contains it to two sequences - a shootout during John and Daniel's initial run, and then the climactic chase between John in his truck laden with drug cash and El Topo's thugs. These sequences are decent, if unremarkable. There are some fun car crashes during the chase. But don't go in expecting "Snitch" to rock you with lots of action and stunt work. It's mostly a drama about a father trying to infiltrate a drug cartel (which he does rather unbelievably quick and easy) in order to free his son from a bum rap.

"Snitch" isn't bad, per se, though. It's just very basic. The story is intriguing, but it feels like the film is just going through the paces instead of really exploring its ideas. The dialogue isn't smart enough to catch up to the plot, and the plot has a couple holes that feel like they were torn open for convenience. That the film occasionally feels like a big-budget afterschool special doesn't help, either.