Surviving the war on drugs
The intimidation factor of Oscar-week kept most films off the release schedule, leaving Dwayne Johnson’s (aka the Rock) new movie as the only one daring to open widely. Why not – since Johnson’s odds of winning an Academy Award are roughly the same as him winning the lottery.
“Snitch” is a socially conscious actioner casting Johnson as John Matthews, a building contractor turned reluctant undercover agent for the Feds. Loosely inspired by real-life events chronicled on PBS’s “Frontline,” “Snitch’s” opening scenes establish a disturbing turn taken as a result of “The war on drugs.”
Matthews’ teen son, Jason (Rafi Gavron), allows his friend to send him a shipment of Ecstasy via Fed Ex for safekeeping, unaware he is being set up to take a fall. His friend has victimized Jason because the friend faced mandatory drug sentencing of 10 years, having been caught with a sufficient quantity of drugs to be classified as a distributor. In order to reduce his first-time offender sentence to one year, his friend was required to catch another distributor for the feds. He chose to frame Jason.
Determined to save his son, who knows no one in the drug trade, Matthews strikes a deal with the hard-boiled U.S. Attorney-prosecutor Joanne Keeghan (Susan Sarandon). If he can reel in a big fish, Keeghan will reduce his son’s sentence.
Matthews’ entree to the drug world is Daniel (Jon Bernthal), a new employee of Matthews’ construction company, released after doing a five-year stint for narcotics distribution. Matthews’ clever plan for setting up a big drug dealer is to offer his company’s semi-trucks as a means of transporting drugs. Unfortunately, his scheme spirals out of control when Matthews is noticed and hired by kingpin El Topo (Benjamin Bratt).
Agent Cooper, soulfully portrayed by Barry Pepper, is stuck between his desire to make the big bust and the U.S. Attorney’s blatant disregard for Matthews’ well-being.
The film seeks a nuanced performance from Johnson, who responds with a determined expression that remains essentially unchanged throughout the movie. Numerous close-ups of the film’s star fail to convey either fear or pain, leaving Pepper to plumb his character for these emotions and display them through an oversized goat-beard.
Nevertheless, with Pepper’s help, the film gains a measure of success by establishing a sense of urgency, consistently ratcheting up the stakes for both Johnson and Daniels, the latter of whom was intent on going straight before becoming caught between his onetime drug associate (Michael K. Williams), and the web that soon entangles Johnson.
As much as I love a heart-stopping action sequence, the film trades some of its credibility by calling for Johnson’s semi-truck to become a flexible battering ram at 70-miles per hour. Naturally, Johnson and Daniel are outgunned and outnumbered, but emerge unscathed from horrific shoot-outs and high speed crashes. Having appealed to an adult crowd during the first half, the film revs its engine for younger viewers during its second half, and loses some of the respect it previously earned.