Dwayne Johnson, a wrestler-turned-actor formerly known as The Rock, is an oversized personality more befitting a cartoon than a live action movie. He’s got a frame that can barely fit through a traditional doorway and an unparalleled ability to convey a host of emotions just in the way that he chooses to stand. His best performances (as a bounty hunter in “The Rundown” or a dogged federal agent in “Fast Five“) have taken advantage of both his size and his willingness to manipulate his stature for the sake of the role (in “Southland Tales” his performance seems almost entirely based on Bugs Bunny). He’s a physical performer unburdened by the tangled psychology that trips up most actors. However, in “Snitch,” the dreary new “based on a true story” action movie about undercover drug informants, Johnson’s physicality is restrained, neutered and muted. He’s a comic book hero forcibly wedged into a postage stamp.
The premise of “Snitch,” which is about as based on a true story as “The Flintstones,” concerns Johnson’s young son Jesse (Rafi Gavron who, in an approximation of Johnson’s fuzzy ethnic background, ends up looking sort of Navajo), who is busted for accepting a package from his buddy containing a whole bunch of ecstasy pills. Johnson, as an estranged father looking to reconnect with his troubled son, pleas for mercy but is told by everyone (including a congressional nominee played by Susan Sarandon) that drug busts carry deep penalties and that, if Jesse is unwilling to snitch on drug dealers he knows, then there’s really nothing they can do. Then Johnson (it’s pointless calling him anything but) has an inspired idea – he’ll use the ex-con connections he’s got as the owner of a construction company to infiltrate the drug underworld. If he can snitch on the appropriate thugs, then, Sarandon agrees, they’ll let his son go. Whew, that was easy.
Keep in mind that this takes a good 45 minutes to get going, and by that point we’ve already suffered through endless scenes of Johnson doing paperwork, looking over files, and checking out Wikipedia (he literally types in “drug cartel”), which we can only assume is because he doesn’t have access to Lexis-Nexis. Co-writer/director Ric Roman Waugh seems to convince himself that he is making an important social drama, and not that “Snitch” is (or maybe should have been) – a junk retribution wish-fulfillment thriller, winding up somewhere between “Taken” and “Traffic.” Everything that makes Johnson such a charismatic screen presence – his offhanded humor, his emotive facial expressions, and his imposing physicality – dwindles. It might be Waugh and Johnson’s attempt to make the character more “human,” but it robs the actor of his primitive power.
For the rest of the movie, once Johnson has decided to start snitching, there’s just a clatter of noisy action sequences and unenthusiastic supporting roles like “The Wire” star Michael K. Williams as a mid-range drug pusher; Barry Pepper as a DEA agent, rocking a fake beard that makes him look like Johnny Depp in “21 Jump Street;” and Benjamin Bratt as a higher level Mexican cartel guy whose most criminal sin seems to be excessive smoothness. (The bad guy extras all look like they came out of Mexican gang member central casting.) As Johnson’s erstwhile sidekick, Jon Bernthal, late of AMC‘s “Walking Dead,” plays an ex-con whose motivation for getting caught up in Johnson’s exploits always remain obtuse, especially after it’s revealed that Johnson is the titular narc. There’s a parallel storyline involving his attempt to get clean and rid himself of his criminal past, but like the rest of the movie, it gives little reason for emotional investment beyond “he’s a good family man.” Well, thanks.
The action sequences, meanwhile, which is what “Snitch” is being sold on, are clumsy and awkwardly constructed. They ramp up in both implausibility and unwieldiness to the point that a third act car chase, which involves both the cartel guys and the DEA agents hot on the heels of Johnson’s big rig truck, is peppered with moments of outrageous phoniness until the whole thing becomes laughable. Since no one in the production will actually allow Johnson to truly embrace all of the things that made him a movie star, it’s got to fall back on clunky moments like one in which he stands in a gun shop, picking out the right weapon for him to kill bad guys with. The moment might have a little jolt to it but that’s because the movie has been so bereft of even a scene even suggesting the kind of action that Johnson is so equipped for.
“Snitch” was co-produced by Participant Media, the socially conscious group that made “An Inconvenient Truth” and “Contagion,” which muddies the waters even further: Is this some bargain basement action thing or is it actually attempting to thoughtfully investigate both the role of drugs in American society and the somewhat haphazard way in which those infractions are being prosecuted? As it turns out, neither: “Snitch” is just a big, dumb, ugly-looking waste of time, one that turns one of cinema’s most charismatic heroes into a restless drone. As they say in the joint: snitches get stitches. But “Snitch” deserves to be put down for good. [D]