The movie poster for Ric Roman Waugh's drama "Snitch" is misleading: it suggests muscles and kick-ass menace to come from its star Dwayne Johnson, but there's not a single moment in Mr. Waugh's film where the man formerly known as The Rock has to expose his biceps much less get into a fist fight. Throughout you wait for a throw-down. It never arrives.
"Snitch", which opened on Friday in the U.S. and Canada, is one of those pleasant surprises that keeps revealing new things. Nothing if not ambitious, "Snitch", based on true events surrounding a man (Mr. Johnson) whose son Jason (Rafi Gavron) is unwittingly ensnared in a drug entrapment and bitten by harsh mandatory-minimum prison sentences for possession, juggles many balls in the air, managing to sustain all of them, and for under two hours.
In Missouri, John Matthews (Mr. Johnson) runs a construction and trucking business, utilizing it to help spring Jason from prison after the latter refuses to cooperate with a federal prosecutor (Susan Sarandon) for a lower sentence. John's mission isn't without obstacles, and his ex-wife has concerns, as does his present wife. Women spend a lot of time on screen in "Snitch" comforting and anguishing over their men, and all of the darkest complexioned people (save one) are either ornery or into some bad, bad things, such as drug dealer Malik (Michael K. Williams, "The Wire", "Brooklyn's Finest"), who charismatically engages a former drug runner (Jon Bernthal) who happens to be an employee for Matthews.
The best aspect of Mr. Waugh's film, which he co-wrote with Justin Haythe, is Mr. Johnson's balanced, resonant performance, the best and deepest of his career. The former wrestler shows he has the skills to make a compelling character genuine, and beyond the facade of mere hulk. In "Snitch" he's stripped of physical potency, and though he swaggers in his walk, any masculine aggression stays bottled. Mr. Johnson leads with his heart here. He is vulnerable, palpable, resolute and always on a razor's edge as John improvises with every new predicament. Stripped of the macho posturing and trappings that cause some not to take him seriously as an actor, Mr. Johnson finally gets a platform to be more dimensional, and he puts his chops into action, aided by close-ups and an almost constantly shaking, often irritating camera.
Impressive and solid, "Snitch" is also absorbing, and I was struck by it. "Snitch" has little action and trickily combines a father-son story, an estranged spouses story and a drug cartel drama with the politics of justice, ethics and elections. "Snitch" makes for a multifaceted, interesting movie that doesn't preach but shows and reveals. It's competent work by Mr. Waugh.
"Snitch" has broader scope than it perhaps should but Mr. Waugh never drops the ball on any threads of his story, which constantly evolves into something even larger than Mr. Johnson, who in this film is the everyman type that Harrison Ford used to be. John is in deep, too deep for his own good, and the turns in the story heighten the gravity of the sacrifices he has to make for his son. Often Mr. Johnson is touching. At times he's plays bruised and cautious, but also eager. Mr. Johnson earnestly portrays a man with a strong sense of justice even as he crosses the line as a means to achieve an end. In doing so John has a gun pointed at his head no fewer than three times.
John isn't the film's only aggrieved figure, and "Snitch" gives a good ensemble cast that includes Benjamin Bratt and Barry Pepper ("Broken City", "25th Hour") room to make their own mark in the story. Mr. Pepper is especially good as a Drug Enforcement Agency cop, as are Mr. Williams and Ms. Sarandon in their roles. "Snitch" is a film with the best of intentions, providing a view of how easily and quickly one can go from being a savior to a sinner. A documentary that "Snitch" was based in part on was shown on PBS television in the U.S. several years ago.
Flavored with Antonio Pinto's "Collateral" music pieces (sometimes overbearing here), "Snitch" reminded me of "Deep Cover", with the line between undercover and criminal set at razor-thin. Several episodes also recall "Heat", and while "Snitch" doesn't have the depth or discipline of Michael Mann's epic, it contains a few moments of good acting.
Mr. Johnson, very good in "Southland Tales" and "Gridiron Gang" (the latter based on true events), has a fine big screen future if this is the kind of acting he does more of. He should demand nothing less of himself. "Snitch" represents a new chapter in the actor's evolution, and I hope it takes hold.
Also with: Melina Kanakaredes, Nadine Velazquez, Lela Loren, David Harbour, JD Pardo, Harold Perrineau.
"Snitch" is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for drug content and sequences of violence. With brief English language subtitles and Spanish language dialogue. The film's running time is one hour and 50 minutes.