By Preston Wilder
Part of me wishes Dwayne Johnson still called himself The Rock (I actually think this would work with other actors too: Robert Downey Jr could call himself ‘The Mouth’, Mel Gibson might be ‘The Rage’, etc), but I can see why he’d want to drop the wrestling moniker and give himself a chance to play real dramatic roles. Snitch looks at first like a throwback to The Rock, from its Jason Statham-esque one-word title to its action thriller plot – drug gangs, shoot-outs, car chases – but in fact it’s a Dwayne Johnson vehicle, “inspired by true events” and deliberately touching on a hot social issue, viz. America’s mandatory minimum sentencing laws for drug offenders.
These are the facts (as presented in the movie, though they match up with what I’ve read elsewhere): if you’re convicted of drug possession with intent to distribute – i.e. being a drug dealer – you face a minimum sentence of 10 years in prison. This is a mandatory sentence, meaning a judge has no leeway to take into account (for instance) that you might be a college-bound 18-year-old with no criminal record who foolishly did a favour for a friend and never intended to sell any drugs. The only person who can help reduce your sentence is the federal prosecutor, and (s)he’ll only do it if you co-operate – if you finger another drug dealer or, failing that, if you set up another friend as innocent as yourself. If you refuse to co-operate, the prosecutor can push for the minimum sentence to be raised to 30 years. Prosecutors in such cases have a 90 per cent conviction rate.
The law was enacted to trap major kingpins, but more than half of those convicted are first-time offenders. This is what Dwayne Johnson is told, and he nods his head soberly – as well he might, because Dwayne plays John Matthews, a successful businessman (he owns a construction company) whose college-bound, 18-year-old son falls foul of the drug laws. The prosecutor (Susan Sarandon) is a hard-as-nails harpy lacking any compassion. John’s son refuses to do unto others what’s been done unto himself, and languishes in prison – so John takes the lead, offering to infiltrate a drug gang and give the Feds what they want in exchange for the sentence being reduced. “I’ve been rolling dice all my life. Might as well do it again,” he shrugs early on, sounding more Rock than Dwayne.
The plot has echoes of The Next Three Days, another tale of an Everyman driven to desperate measures, with a meeting in jail once again providing the final impetus (John is shocked by the sight of his gaunt, battered child) – and the film has much of the same hybrid quality, action thrills blended with the melodrama of a parent in pain. This is a moody, serious-minded movie (Johnson flashes his trademark toothy smile exactly once in the whole thing), shot with a restless camera, overlaid with an atmospheric score that tends to throb rather than hurtle. Jon Bernthal gives a soulful performance as the ex-con employee who gives John an “introduction”, and we get a pungent glimpse of his family life – his son tempted by gangs, his wife abused in a low-paying job – though the actual gangsta friends he introduces never get beyond the generic; local kingpin Malik sits in his “crib” spitting out snarly comments, pulls a gun to make sure John isn’t “po-po” and turns off the music (“Yo, homey, kill the beat!”) long enough to interrogate our hero.
Snitch is too long and repetitive, and never very good in the first place – but there’s something here, a sense of being pinned down by the System that keeps it real even when the plot is unconvincing (it seems unwise for John to go into his first meeting with Malik with a hidden tape recorder, to put it mildly). Johnson is in Dwayne mode, not Rock mode: he gets pushed around and told what to do – and it’s quite effective seeing his huge bulk trapped like this, a big bull-like presence rendered helpless by the legal system on one side and the men with guns on the other.
The film is liberal disguised as conservative, or perhaps vice versa. The obvious call to reform unfair drug laws is a sign of the Left (or as Left as it gets in America), but the plot is a plea for less government and a case of a rugged individual taking control of his destiny. In the second half, as the Feds prove unreliable and the gangsters begin to turn nasty, John has finally had enough. “There’s no way I’m going to let either side dictate our fates!” he announces – and we cut straight to the racks of rifles at the local gun mart, and our grim-faced hero selecting his weapon of choice. That’s the Rock we know and love.
DIRECTED BY Ric Roman Waugh
STARRING Dwayne Johnson, Jon Bernthal, Susan Sarandon
US 2013 112 mins