The key to making a good “message” film is to hide that message in the subtext of the plot, so as not to annoy people by beating them over the head with your theme. Steven Soderbergh’s “Traffic” is probably the best example of how to do this, as it deconstructs the drug war from the cartels on down to addicts. On the other end of the spectrum are films like “Killing Me Softly,” which spends most of its run time complaining about the economy and little else. We get it. Times are tough. Now entertain me. “Snitch” tries to tackle one-third of what “Traffic” did, by looking at the legal system’s fractured punishments for drugs.
Dwayne “don’t call me The Rock” Johnson is John Matthews, the father of a boy who’s busted by the Feds after his friend convinces him to “hold a package” full of drugs for him. Turns out the kid’s friend was playing John’s son so he could get a reduced sentence. The federal prosecutor (Susan Sarandon) offers the same deal to the younger Matthews, but he refuses to set up anyone, so it’s ten years in the slammer for him. John refuses to accept this fate for his son, and using his construction business as a cover and a former drug dealer (Jon Bernthal of “Walking Dead” fame) to get him in the game, Matthews sets about trying to rack up the arrests needed to reduce his son’s sentence down to a year.
Yes, the drug dealers are all bad people in “Snitch,” but the true villain is Sarandon’s federal prosecutor. Playing the face of the film’s “message,” she’s a conservative running for office who’s only concerned about racking up arrests and prison sentences, regardless of whether or not the punishment fits the crime.
Inspired by true events, “Snitch” features Johnson’s most grounded performance by far, but it’s odd to see the man formerly known as The Rock quiver and shake at the sight of bad guys with guns, especially when he’s the biggest guy in the room. It’s like he should easily rip some heads off, not be scared.
The funny thing about “Snitch” is that it’s been advertised as an action film, but it really plays out as more of a drama. This is much more an acting piece for Johnson than it is another action vehicle for him, which helps explain how they got such an excellent supporting cast, which includes Sarandon, Barry Pepper with the most ridiculous goatee of all time, Benjamin Bratt, Nadine Velasquez and Michael K. Williams.
Because of the focus on drama, “Snitch” is actually a lot better than it has any right to be. Yes, it’s heavy-handed, but the mix of drama and action makes for a nice surprise, as well as one of Dwayne Johnson’s best movies to date.