“Snitch” may not be the movie you’ve been lead to believe. Trailers and TV spots make it out to be an adrenaline-charged man movie for men, full of explosions, gun fights, car chases, and, you know, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson taking down a vicious drug cartel to save his son. That’s one hell of a dad right there. While all of this does come into play, the high-octane stuff is relatively minimal. Hell, the only time the Rock gets into a physical altercation he gets his ass handed to him by a couple of punk kids.
The whole movie is Johnson playing against type. He’s not a badass, he’s not a hero, he’s just a concerned parent, and this easily ranks among the former professional wrestler’s best performances to date. Director Ric Roman Waugh eschews the action trappings, leaning more towards tense thriller and family melodrama territory, which is where “Snitch” is the strongest and weakest, respectively.
John Matthews—the most generic, mundane name you can imagine—has a somewhat estranged 18-year-old son, Jason (Rafi Gavron), who foolishly accepts a box of ecstasy a friend mails to him. When he is immediately busted by the DEA, it turns out the quantity of pills qualifies him for a mandatory minimum prison sentence of 10 years, unless he rats on some of his own buddies. In a movie named “Snitch,” Jason is the one who actually refuses to snitch, instead taking the years, despite the fact that he receives regular beatings for his trouble. Daddy, however, has none of his kid’s qualms against snitching, and sets out to knock some time off of Junior’s sentence by rolling over on anyone he can entrap.
“Snitch” is a jab at the injustice of mandatory minimum sentencing laws, one that doesn’t particularly connect. Not for lack of trying, mind you, they hammer at this point throughout. The situation is as bland and palatable as humanly possible, designed to make the audience think: if this can happen to a nice suburban white kid (even though Johnson is black and Samoan, Jason is a whitewashed Hollywood every-kid, and there’s no attempt to make them look related in the slightest) from a good home who just made one teensy, tiny mistake that he only kinda, sorta made (he told his buddy not to send him the ecstasy, but he did it anyway), then it can happen to anyone.
The bad guys are all mono-dimensional racial movie types—Michael Kenneth Williams basically revamps his Omar person from “The Wire,” only without the charisma, and Benjamin Bratt is a suave, savage head of a violent Mexican cartel. John doesn’t care who he has to bulldoze in order to free his son. This includes Daniel (Jon Bernthal), an ex-con and two-striker who works for him. Daniel has a wife and young son of his own, and is making an earnest effort to go straight after a lifetime of being a hardened gangbanger, but in true Hollywood fashion, he’s struggling.
When John offers him a ridiculous amount of money for an introduction into the drug trafficking world, Daniel has few options, even though this constitutes conspiracy, would be a third strike, and potentially mean spending the rest of his life in prison. Playing the morally torn guy in a tough spot, Bernthal is strong, as well as being way less annoying than his interpretation of Shane on “The Walking Dead.”
You want to root for John. He, too, is a good guy in a hard place, trying to do right by his family. And there’s just something inherently likable about The Rock when he gets in front of a camera. Still, the thing with Daniel is a total dick move, as John never takes the likely consequences for this other man and his family into account. From the first step, John intends to turn on everyone he encounters, and he knows what that will most likely mean for Daniel, but he goes right ahead and does it anyway. Like I said, dick move.
The story unfolds exactly as you expect it to. Everything that always goes wrong in a movie goes wrong in this movie. Everyone you expect to pull some bullshit, like a politically ambitious state’s attorney (Susan Sarandon), pull precisely that shit you see coming a mile away. Dialogue is used primarily for exposition, not characterization, and every detail you need to know becomes a convenient part of casual conversation. That is, after all, how you learn that Daniel used to be a “shot caller from the East Side.” Combined with a collection of generic gang tattoos, this is all you really learn about his past, except that he’s trying to outrun it. There is no subtext here, nothing subtle going on at all, and “Snitch” is obvious at every turn.
If you can get past the awkward political misstep, the blatantness of every encounter, and scrape through the heavy-handed family melodrama, what you’re left with is a decently tense thriller. Push all the peripheral junk to the side, take the scenes for themselves, and “Snitch” isn’t all that bad. When John finally gets his sit down with Malik (Williams), or when he goes on his first run for the cartel, these moments, and more, work precisely as they’re supposed to. They’re taut, pressure driven scenes where the heightened sensibility pushes the pace and action. That carries the bulk of the film.