Prediction: Two-thousand years in the future, all statues of gods will look like today's most physically perfect humans, Kim Kardashian and Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson. Kardashian will have done nothing more to merit it, but The Rock has the charisma, the talent and the time. But he needs the right roles.
Snitch is Phase Three in Johnson's push for immortality. He's been a wrestler and a kiddie action star, and now it's time to be taken seriously as a screen legend. Actually, Snitch is more of a half-step—in it, Johnson straddles two worlds as a macho workaholic who owns a construction company. He's salt-of-the-earth enough to roll up his sleeves and lug bags of concrete when the rain's a-coming, but he lives in a McMansion with an infinity pool and credibly says things like, “Let's move some equity around.” Of course, instead of listening to him act, the audience spends the first 20 minutes fixated on wondering where he got his expensive button-ups tailored to fit his massive neck.
Twice-married, once-divorced, with a kid from each ambiguously ethnic hot wife, his character John seems to have it all together. But then his semi-estranged 18-year-old son Jason (Rafi Gavron) takes a Skype call from the wrong friend: his childhood pal Craig (James Allen McCune) who you know is bad news because his entire bedroom is decorated in pot leaves. Craig asks Jason to sign for a package containing 2,000 ecstasy pills, which must be cheaper than the industry standard because he expects them to net $7,000. (Ahem, not that I've been to Burning Man. Twice.) Jason says “I don't know, bro”—Justin Haythe and co-writer and director Ric Roman Waugh's script is egregious in its use of “bro”—and slams shut his laptop. And when the FedEx arrives anyway, Jason pales like the Big Bad Wolf is at the door. But he signs for the package anyway, and than instantly his street is mobbed by six undercover DEA agents with hilariously bad methhead goatees and several unmarked cars because, you know, nothing is more important than preventing our kids from getting so high that they dig Deadmau5.
Cue Snitch teaching the Rock—and us—about the super screwed-up world of mandatory minimums and thumb-screwed informants. If you're ever watched The Wire, you've learned that cops threaten low-tier offenders with massive jail time unless they set-up someone else. The result is an evil pay-it-forward that burns small-time peddlers—often, the only “bad guys” these people know—and when it goes really bad, kids who get caught with weed end up murdered. (Google Rachel Hoffman.) Angelic Jason has two options: ten years in jail, or just two if he turns in someone else. “I know I should be punished for it, but not like this,” he quavers to his dad during visiting hours, his face bruised from prison poundings. The Rock warns him that crying makes him look like a pansy. Then he resolves that if his son won't snitch, he will. But first, this upstanding citizen has to find someone to snitch on.
Yes, this is a film where The Rock Wikipedias “drug cartels.” The first half of Snitch is an information dump with minor characters popping in to spout facts about the judicial system and blame Jason's fate on the fact that his parents were divorced. Representing the villainous judicial system is Susan Sarandon as a femmebot federal prosecutor with a 90% conviction rate, a steel heart, and her own Congressional election to consider. She's damned if she'll look soft on crime, even if it costs Jason his future. Hell, she's so mean that when her adviser warns her that liberals think she's mean, she sneers, “Oh, maybe I should go to a gay wedding.”
But weirdly, even though Snitch's political seams are totally exposed, The Rock makes the film work. Even though he couldn't look more like an undercover cop if he had a badge tattooed on his pec, he sets about using his mighty charisma—and his convenient access to 18-wheelers—to infiltrate the local drug scene. Which, problematically, seems to only be made up of Latinos and African Americans who say things like, “Ese!” and “Crack is wack!” But, uh, at least it gives a job to The Wire's Michael Kenneth Williams, an actor who should be getting cast in Shakespeare or at least someone with a 401K. Here, he sticks to stereotype as scary bossman Malik, whose most memorable quality is his dead-on drug dealer apartment with grimy carpet and a punching bag to keep his bored goons busy.
But besides hiring The Rock, Snitch does make one more smart casting decision: It hires Jon Bernthal, a great character actor who looks like if Tom Hardy was tumble-dried on high heat, to play John's employee and reluctant partner-in-crime Daniel, a two-time felon and reformed family man. Forty minutes into the movie, director Waugh drops poor sad Jason entirely and builds up Daniel as Snitch's second major character. The film instantly improves. Daniel can't afford his third strike, but he also can't afford to turn down the $20K his boss is offering for an introduction to Malik. Without knowing that his boss' endgame is likely to get him arrested or killed, we watch him wade so deep into the scheme that he can't get out, which causes us to resent John for propagating the system he's pretending to fight.
With the entrance of Benjamin Bratt as Mexican kingpin El Topo, Sarandon and her DEA agent raise the stakes until there's only one route to freedom: a badass car chase. But unlike the smash-em-up snooze of A Good Day to Die Hard's million dollar car crash porn, the bullets matter. By the time The Rock transitions from business casual to hood rat hoodies, you care about him and you care about his son—and you care about Daniel and his son, and you even care about the sons of their enemies and possibly even their future unborn sons, and maybe manage to spare a twinge for the film's sole daughter, John's kid with his second wife, but since she's a girl that's probably stretching it.
Snitch is 15% action and 85% talk—and a third of that talk is actually lecture—but its damned effective at making that action, and the people it hurts, resonate. Since there is no happy ending to mandatory minimums in reality—the flick wants us to rally against them, not use itself as a template—it forces you to ignore crowd-pleasing plotholes. Still, it's a solid start for Dwayne Johnson as he elbows his way into dramatic roles while praying audiences ignore that he looks not born of man, but of immortals. Now it's time to drop his default heroism and play someone truly dark. The next time he asks if we can smell what The Rock is cooking, I hope the answer is crystal meth.