The likeable Dwayne Johnson tries so hard to be taken seriously in the ponderous and preposterous drama Snitch that it hurts to watch him in much the same way it hurts to watch the weightlifting competition at the summer Olympics. Playing John Matthews, a squeaky clean small-business owner in the construction trade who improbably goes undercover in the drug world to save his son, Johnson struggles to heft emotions into the air, pauses to be admired, and then drops them with a thud. The former professional wrestler and football player
makes a more convincing Tooth Fairy than he does an avenging father.
But Snitch wasn’t going to be good no matter what Johnson did; it is so poorly directed that even Academy Award winner Susan Sarandon, playing a shrewish federal prosecutor, comes off as a hack straight off a soap opera. Director and co-writer (and longtime stuntman) Ric Roman Waugh seems to be enjoying a new career as a director of one-word titled flicks (his last was Felon; his next, Currency) that deal with an ordinary Joe being oppressed by the government’s unfair laws. If Snitch makes a case for anything other than action sequences that utilize shiny new semis—Waugh shoots John Matthews’ 18-wheeler plowing through obstacles as if it were a magnificent elephant on a freeway rampage—it is the
easing of drug laws so that nice young men like John’s son Jason (Rafi Gavron) aren’t derailed on their way to college.
Poor Jason. One day he’s sitting on the couch Skyping with a friend who wants to send him a package of drugs and resisting mightily, even though gee, it would be fun to do some Ecstasy with his girlfriend. He has about five seconds to drool over the clutch-purse-sized package of MDMA that arrives some days later, before his face is being pressed into asphalt and an undercover agent (Barry Pepper, sporting a goatee that would embarrass even Brad Pitt) is leading him off to prison. Pressured by the DEA, his buddy gave him up. According to Jason’s gloomy attorney (David Harbour), mandatory-minimum sentencing for that many pills is 10 years. “Are you out of your mind?” shrieks Jason’s mom Sylvie (Melina Kanakaredes). “He just got accepted into college!”
Sylvie is John’s first wife: Tired, resentful, muttering about layoffs as she comes in the door for her first scene. His new model, Analisa (Nadine Velazquez from Flight) has a smoother complexion and such unnaturally puffy lips that she has a hard time throwing words out over them. Both of them are presented as essentially hysterical unhelpful women who let John do all the hard work in rescuing young Jason. And what work it is. His hopes of sweet-talking the feds into downgrading Jason’s sentence are dashed in his first encounter with nasty Joanne Keeghan (Sarandon). But somehow he persuades her that he can bring in a drug dealer or two since he’s in the construction business and employs ex-cons.
(Read: Mary Pols on Johnson’s Journey 2: The Mysterious Island )
The felon on his crew, Daniel James (Jon Bernthal, who gives Snitch’s only credible performance), gets roped into making introductions even though he’s trying hard to go straight. Soon, John is transporting drugs in his big rigs and getting into the kinds of situations that cause other characters to make
observations like “he’s way out of his depth.” Drug runner Malik (Michael K. Williams from Boardwalk Empire) thrusts his gun at John, watches him blanch and is quickly satisfied he’s not a cop. “If you was the po-po you’d be the biggest p—- pig I’d ever seen.” Then he strokes his rosary beads. Did Waugh tell Williams to channel his inner Brando, stroking that cat in The Godfather, as he set up this scene? It’s tired, awkward and empty. The logical lapses mount as the movie goes on, until in the last scenes, absolutely no effort is made to address why a dying man conveniently cooperates, or how a boy is both kidnapped and saved.
Visually, the movie is all over the place. While Waugh allows us full, loving glimpses of say, the grill of John’s car, or the gleaming hulk of that semi, when it comes to people having deep, painful conversations, we get fractions of faces.
When John owns up to what an absent dad he’s been to Jason, in an emotional talk over the prison telephones, we see mostly backs of heads. There’s some handheld camera work, but only at precisely the moment when there’s action you might want a decent look at. Things we don’t need to see, like John looking through old job applications to find someone who checked the felony conviction box, get far too much attention. And then there are the prop and costume clichés. The bad guy clutches a rosary. Daniel puts up his hoodie whenever he’s feeling criminal. During a visit to Daniel’s apartment, the dialogue takes a back seat to car alarms and police sirens. In his quest for gritty authenticity, Waugh has fussed over the details but his version of the underbelly of drug dealing looks like a knock-off. It’s not seamy, it’s silly.