Director: Ric Roman Waugh
Runtime: 112 minutes
Watching the trailer for Ric Roman Waugh‘s Snitch had me believing the film would be a high-octane actioner in the vein of Dwayne Johnson‘s other one-word titled thriller Faster. Between the depiction of The Rock’s John Matthews going undercover with the DEA to bring down a narcotics kingpin and the writer/director’s past as a stuntman/stunt coordinator, it seemed a pretty easy leap to make. Interestingly enough, however, this isn’t the case and I’m torn whether that realization is a positive or negative. Generally action movies showing more than meets the eye under the surface are a genuine treat because they buck the trend of dumbed-down America wanting nothing but violence, sex, and explosions. This one may simply be trying a little too hard to be more than it is.
On the one hand a decently told fictionalization of the destruction wrought by misappropriated mandatory minimum drug sentencing is a welcome surprise. Having just recently watched the great documentary The House I Live In, Waugh’s film proves to be a nice—albeit overly glossy and worst possible scenario clichéd—companion. Original screenwriter Justin Haythe was hired to craft the story around this topic, getting inspiration from a Frontline episode explaining how new federal policy used to capture high profile criminals was in fact ruining the lives of kids caught in the war’s wake. These minimums are so strict because the DEA hopes their length will scare guys into flipping their bosses. But when it’s an innocent eighteen-year old getting set-up by his high school buddy, there’s no one left to save him.
This is where Johnson’s Matthews comes into the fold as a successful businessman who turned a career driving trucks into a lucrative fleet of his own. Very keen on the idea of second chances, he hires ex-cons to get good manual labor while also giving them an opportunity to turn their lives around. Despite his formidable physique, however, he is not of their ranks. No, it seems John’s only failure in life was his first marriage to Sylvie (Melina Kanakaredes) and his pushing away of a son who needed a father (Rafi Gavron‘s Jason) due to the job’s long stints away. Happily remarried to Analisa (Nadine Velazquez) with a young daughter of their own, it’s easy for him to judge his ex and her parenting skills of a troublemaker, but it’s not like he ever tried to intervene.
No, Matthews assumes the worst when federal agents arrest Jason for accepting a friend’s package of Ecstasy. He tells his lawyer (David Harbour) to let him stew overnight, unaware of just how serious the circumstances are. Facing ten years or more without help from the prosecution, Jason’s only chance at leniency is to rat out another fresh-faced kid like his friend did to him. Unwilling to continue that vicious cycle, however, this soon-to-be college freshman chooses jail and most likely death inside as a stand against a system in desperate need of some grey to temper its high contrast spectrum of right and wrong. With no other options Matthews turns his boy’s courage into his own, hounds Federal Prosecutor Keeghan (Susan Sarandon) for a meet, and makes a deal.
By using an employee’s connection to the life (Jon Bernthal‘s Daniel), Matthews dupes street boss Malik (Michael Kenneth Williams) into giving him a shot at providing transportation for his product. A test run puts him on the radar of cartel leader El Topo (Benjamin Bratt) and things escalate quickly to where even John’s liaison with the DEA (Barry Pepper‘s Cooper) gets squirrely. Matthews is just a regular blue-collar dude with a son about to be lost inside a corrupt system of numbers our government tries extra hard to never treat as more than statistics. With back against the wall he must take matters into his own hands and do whatever’s necessary to save his two families and Daniel’s—a guy finally free of the life until Matthews drags him back in—from retribution.
But what about the action? Sadly, Snitch is more made-for-TV melodrama than adrenaline-pumping thrill ride besides its climactic interstate chase between Johnson’s shotgun-totting family man in a semi versus six cartel lackeys with automatic weaponry. Waugh ratchets up the tension whenever possible by showing the escalating prison abuse dolled out to Jason via multiplying scars and stitches, Bernthal’s transformation from reformed citizen to cutthroat killer stopping at nothing to keep his wife and son safe, and Johnson’s ever-increasing stakes as Sarandon’s Keeghan uses his plight to get closer to the biggest drug bust of her career in hopes it helps her run for Congress. Everyone has his/her own ulterior motives in this plan but with Matthews’ sacrificial dad in the lead it’s more about handwringing and tears than gunshots and destruction.
Again, this fact doesn’t have to be bad unless the drama becomes too overwrought to care anymore. Snitch does unfortunately fall into this category. The acting is great from Sarandon’s duplicity to Pepper’s idealism to Williams’ sly street professionalism to Bratt’s over-the-top villainy to our leads. Bernthal’s Daniel proves to be the most three-dimensional of the bunch in a captivatingly nuanced performance that earns our empathy while The Rock’s Matthews stays true to his charismatic self without ever devolving into parody. The problem with this last part, however, is that the film isn’t a courtroom drama in need of a sympathetic, compassionate father. It’s thriller in the trenches with dire consequences at play. Waugh’s hopes to merge the two only added to its inability to be either.
Snitch is now in wide release.
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