Review: 'Snitch'

To answer your first question: no, Dwayne “Don’t You Dare Call Me ‘The Rock’ Anymore” Johnson doesn’t exactly blend in at the center of Ric Roman Waugh’s “Snitch,” but that doesn’t stop Johnson and Waugh from trying to pretend that our 6-foot-4 leading man couldn’t easily put a whooping on any drug dealers who decide to tussle with him. Furthermore, that fact - combined with the film’s dubious basis in true events and its inevitably explosive finale - doesn’t entirely prevent “Snitch” from being a moderately entertaining desperate-dad drama.

When Jason (Rafi Gavron) is arrested after agreeing to receive a shipment of ecstasy pills, he attempts to reduce his sentence by turning in the one person he knows in the drug trade, only to discover that’s exactly who set him up. Jason's father, John (Johnson), pleads with the local federal prosecutor (Susan Sarandon, in the Sigourney Weaver role), but she refuses to budge on mandatory minimum sentencing unless she can obtain more convictions out of it. In turn, John touches base with an ex-con employee (Jon Bernthal), and goes about ingratiating himself with the criminal element in order to pay it forward, judicially speaking.

When reliable character actor David Harbour shows up early on as a public defender, he’s mostly burdened with spouting stats about mandatory minimums to John, ex-wife Sylvie (Melina Kanakaredes, in the Amy Brenneman part) and the audience. Whether in narratives or documentaries, it’s the Participant Media way, but these soapbox asides mercifully subside until a climactic title card takes one last stab at swaying your average popcorn-munching moviegoers. Luckily for said moviegoers, Eugene Jarecki’s “Contraband” this ain’t.

Waugh and co-writer Justin Haythe smartly bolster John’s storyline with the similar devotion-turned-desperation throughline of Bernthal’s character, and he plays well off Johnson, lending a blue-collar credibility that grounds the film until its falling-domino wish-fulfillment climax. For the most part, their reluctant entry/re-entry into the world of drug-running evokes Michael Mann’s cool view of both sides of the law, leaving many exchanges to be sparse with dialogue yet dense with detail and prone to dry humor between each realm’s head honchos, with Sarandon’s selective interest and systematic indifference matched by the sly, coiled Michael K. Williams as a local drug dealer.

Even for being fundamentally miscast, Johnson turns in good work here, anchoring his uneasy involvement in an understandable guilt over not having minded his son once he re-married and effectively began another family entirely. Although the jail visitation scenes skew closer to melodrama, anything else with everyone else - Bernthal, Sarandon, Williams, Barry Pepper as a chief federal agent - manages to credibly establish their deep-dug roles in this world and subsequently make Johnson seem like a more viable everyman for his efforts. Every character simply wants what’s theirs, whether it be a repeat term in public office, a cartel to call their own or a son finally free from harm.

A stronger film might have had a more distinctive villain than Benjamin Bratt’s infrequently intimidating kingpin, a more common-seeming lead than the hulking Johnson, or a tighter focus on the complementary American enterprises of entrepreneurship and entrapment. Still, despite its apparent compromises to noble finger-wagging (initially) and requisite fist-pumping (eventually), Waugh has fashioned a sturdy character-first entertainment out of “Snitch” at a time of year when those are all too rare to behold.

Grade: B