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by Brett Gallman

"Exerts the mandatory minimum effort."
3 stars

“Snitch” closes with a title card noting the relative absurdity of federal mandatory minimum sentences for first time drug offenders—you know, just in case you didn’t notice the wacky story the film has spun around the concept for the previous 100 minutes or so.

Purported to be inspired by true events, presumably in the sense that there is a hopeless war on drugs that sometimes punishes the wrong people, “Snitch” starts with the low-hanging fruit of this battle in the form of Jason Collins (Rafi Gavron), a 19 year old kid who finds DEA agents banging down his door after his buddy ships him a box full of pills. Even though he didn’t exactly agree to the transaction (his friend coerces him into it), he finds himself facing ten years in prison unless he cooperates with the feds. The notion is a dead end, though, since he’s just a kid who isn’t exactly connected to any dealers, much less drug cartels; furthermore, he refuses to set up any of his own friends.

Enter his dad, John Matthews (Dwayne Johnson), the owner of a local construction business who is desperate to reduce his son’s sentence, so he strikes up a deal with the local federal prosecutor (Susan Sarandon): he’ll effectively go undercover and bring down some local dealers on his son’s behalf. Despite her insistence that it “doesn’t work this way” (which I assume it actually doesn’t, which would make for a boring movie), she eventually relents, and Matthews teams up with an ex-con employee (Jon Bernthal) that introduces him to the world of drug trafficking.

Despite boasting one of our better action stars (in an admittedly shallow pool) in the lead role, “Snitch” is surprisingly light on big action beats—there’s a shootout about midway through and it climaxes with some serviceable vehicular carnage. But, for the most part, you won’t see The Rock dishing out Rock Bottoms or elbow drops to drug cartels since “Snitch” primarily relies on escalating drama with a plot that becomes increasingly nutty as it wears on.

Even though you can set a watch to its various clichés and twists (such as deals going bad or changing), the approach is still effective, particularly since it comes with the not-so-subtle notion that both the “good guys” (the feds) and the “bad guys” (the cartels) are just about equally oily in their dealings. The film doesn’t go so far as to insist that both are on the same level, but there’s something pointedly unlikable about Sarandon’s prosecutor; like any good aspiring politician (she’s of course running for Congress in one of the film’s subplots), she’s a manipulator who somehow sees this situation as her big opportunity. She doesn’t seem particularly concerned for John, but, not unlike the cartels, she sees him as a pretty good tool that she effectively attempts to wield for positive publicity.

A trenchant criticism on the War on Drugs this isn’t, but it does tap into its more farcical side as a set of common folks get caught up and victimized in this elaborate plot. In many ways, the film represents a sort of Reagan-esque dream where the system works out as it should; after all, we’re told that the harsh federal sentences are in place to coerce suspects into snitching on each other, and this film supposes that the conceit can work better than anyone could possibly imagine when this endeavor leads all the way to a kingpin (Benjamin Bratt). Then again, it does come in the form of a story that’s just too unbelievable to be true (and for good reason), so maybe this is a well calculated piss take after all.

Either way, “Snitch” is another one of those Superstation drama-thrillers that’s made a bit more remarkable thanks to its cast. Johnson might feel like a bit of a miscast in the role of the common man, but he acquits himself well enough. The script actually goes to great lengths to downplay his physicality and tough guy presence; not only are his physical tussles limited, but he actually flinches and recoils when he’s faced with violence. His big move during the shootout is to get the hell out of dodge, and he seems wholly uncomfortable during his various encounters with drug lords. This isn’t a calm, confident Rock—for better or worse, this is Dwayne Johnson in bit more demanding role, and he’s able to coast on a natural charisma that sees him through some stiff stretches.

Bernthal is arguably the film’s most compelling element; his character is another cliché in a sea of them—he’s the struggling, twice convicted felon who just wants to turn his life around for the sake of his wife and young son—but Bernthal infuses him with a complex dignity. You can feel his struggle to resist John’s overtures, almost to the point where you don’t even want him to play along with the scheme. He’s that good at convincing you that he’s truly turned his life around for good this time, and it takes all of a few minutes of screen time. I’ll hesitate to call this a revelation since he provided most of the gravity on “The Walking Dead,” but this is solid evidence that he’ll be known for more than that in short order (I can’t wait to see what Scorsese does with him in “The Wolf of Wall Street”).

“Snitch” also provides an always welcome Barry Pepper sighting as he reliably slides into the role of an agent working alongside John. Since he’s done up in a meth tweaker uniform (complete with scraggly beard and ominous tattoos), he usually plays an undercover role during investigations, but he mostly hangs back to provide support and bark into cell phones. Still, he’s pretty likable in a very Barry Pepper way, and he even gets his own big moment of conflict when he’s forced to make a tough (but obvious) decision.

By ultimately serving as a textbook example of dumb fun, “Snitch” just stays a little too obvious, and whatever concerns it has about the War on Drugs is either suppressed in favor of cheap, crowd-pleasing thrills or relegated to that cursory title card as it slams into its credits. Director Ric Roman Wright helms a sturdy, rugged production that’s mostly carried by the cast. His background is in stuntwork, but he doesn’t seem to be all that concerned in pigeonholing himself there since “Snitch” isn’t a slam-bang action movie (it does occasionally feature some of the best big rig action this side of “Black Dog,” though). That said, it’s not a dire, serious drama, either and features a decent dose of humor and some feel-good sentiment since it’s not really that indignant about its subject matter.

Besides, if taken at face value, “Snitch” comes down on the side of the Feds, anyway; maybe that’s a big assumption to make, but it might be an even bigger leap to assume the movie has much of anything to say at all.

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originally posted: 02/22/13 14:59:38
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User Comments

7/14/13 mr.mike Worth a rental but pretty much a good "Miami Vice" ep. 3 stars
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  22-Feb-2013 (PG-13)
  DVD: 11-Jun-2013


  DVD: 11-Jun-2013

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