THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
You wouldn't know it from surface impressions, but Snitch is not your typical Dwayne Johnson action movie. For starters, there's hardly any action in it. Oh sure, there's a doozy of a car chase toward the end, and a few other moments scattered about, but the film is more of a drama (albeit a tense one) than anything. It also has more going on inside its head than you would expect. Whereas most films of this type are merely about how many asses the hero can kick over the course of two hours, Snitch offers up some provocative ideas about, of all things, “mandatory minimum” laws for drug-related crimes. While not without a few flaws, I have to say that the movie turns out to be a very pleasant surprise.
Johnson plays John Matthews, the owner of a Missouri construction company. His teenage son, Jason (Rafi Gavron), unwisely agrees to accept a FexEx package full of Ecstasy for a friend, and is subsequently busted by the DEA. Because of the number of pills in the package, Jason faces a mandatory minimum sentence of ten years in prison – right as he is supposed to be heading off for college. A U.S. attorney/Congressional hopeful named Joanne Keeghan (Susan Sarandon) offers to reduce Jason's sentence if he'll rat on a drug dealer to her. The problem is, Jason doesn't actually know any drug dealers. He really is an innocent kid who made a dumb decision. Desperate to keep his kid out of jail, John volunteers to do undercover work for the DEA on his behalf. Since he doesn't know any drug dealers either, he turns to one of his employees, two-time felon Daniel James (Jon Bernthal), for an “introduction” to Malik (Michael K. Williams), a notorious local dealer. John offers to transport drugs for Malik in his work trucks. But rather than quickly setting the guy up and moving on, he instead finds himself sinking deeper into the world of a massive drug cartel, headed by the dangerous “El Topo” (Benjamin Bratt).
Snitch does a number of things well, starting with the way it depicts family issues. John and Jason have issues with one another, but when the chips are down, the father is unreservedly there for the son. The desire to prevent a seemingly-arbitrary law from ruining his kid's life is the thing that motivates John to put his own life in danger. Dwayne Johnson gives a very sincere performance here, showing how the character's paternal instinct goes into overdrive. There are also a number of poignant scenes involving Daniel and his family. We learn that he has vowed to stay on the straight-and-narrow, but the simple act of introducing John to Malik ends up pulling him back into the game he wants no part of. When his wife finds out, both of them realize the life they were building for themselves is now in jeopardy. Keeping the story so centered on family dynamics gives Snitch an emotional weight that elevates it into something really interesting.
I also liked the way the movie examines the cost of the “war on drugs.” While we all agree that drug dealers need to be prosecuted, Snitch argues, compellingly, that mandatory minimum sentences are the wrong way to go. First-time offenders can spend more years in jail than murderers or rapists, and there is little or no accounting for individual circumstances. A young person who makes a single bad choice is put on the same level as a violent drug offender. Snitch does not shy away from making its point; accordingly, it is a deeper, more layered story than the advertising would suggest.
Director Ric Roman Waugh is a former stuntman, and when the film does occasionally have a burst of action, he stages it extremely well. Again, there's not a ton of action, but what there is possesses a realistic quality. The third act chase scene is not packed with over-the-top stunts. Instead, it plays in a more grounded manner. The same holds true for a shootout midway through. Keeping the action at a believable level not only makes it more exciting, it also allows it to serve the characters and the theme rather than overshadow them. Waugh also maintains a suspenseful pace during the sequences in which John wanders through the drug subculture.
There are a few tiny things the movie could have improved on, such as developing John's ex-wife (Melina Kanakaredes) into something more than an obsessive worrier. Also, the dialogue is oftentimes a little too “on the nose.” Some subtle shading in the characters' conversations would have prevented certain scenes from bordering on melodrama. Yet even with these flaws, Snitch is very engrossing, giving us two family men – John and Daniel – who try to navigate a ruthless underworld without it negatively affecting their families. It also points out that we may need to rethink this mandatory minimum thing before it derails the lives of people who could be rehabilitated and allowed to remain productive members of society.
( out of four)
Snitch is rated PG-13 for drug content and sequences of violence. The running time is 1 hour and 51 minutes.
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