Snitch could have been a great film if the filmmakers behind it had either a) turned it into a straight-up action movie or b) tried to create a present day companion piece to other gritty crime movies like Donnie Brasco or State of Grace. Instead, writer/director Ric Roman Waugh attempts to steer a middle course, and the result is a middling film. Because Snitch can’t decide whether it wants to be drama or an action flick, it doesn’t work as either.
Dwayne Johnson stars as John Matthews, a distressed father who offers to work as a snitch for a federal prosecutor after his son (Rafi Gavron) is arrested by the DEA for conspiracy to distribute narcotics. Of course the boy isn’t actually a drug dealer. We find out that he’s just a dumb kid, experimenting with drugs, who received a bag of ecstasy from a friend. Unfortunately, that friend had been busted by the DEA earlier and was in turn working for the federal government as a snitch. As soon as the package of drugs lands in the kid’s hands, federal agents nab him.
Even worse for the boy, the amount of ecstasy he receives throws him within the ambit of the federal mandatory minimum laws. Unless the federal prosecutor handling the case agrees to reduce the boy’s charges, he faces a mandatory minimum of ten years in prison. However, the feds offer a way out: if the kid agrees to throw another person under the bus, he’ll receive a reduced sentence. The whole scenario is reminiscent of a gypsy curse, with each person who finds himself afflicted passing the pain onto another clueless sucker. Meanwhile, a ravenous federal government feasts on the resulting stream of convictions.
John offers his services to a manipulative prosecutor (Susan Sarandon) when it becomes clear that his son is unable to come up with any information to feed to the DEA. The deal: if John helps the feds rack up some convictions, they’ll cut his boy loose. He uses his position as the owner of a trucking company to gain an introduction into the criminal underworld and employs his resources to gain a reputation as a drug trafficker. It’s not long before he attracts the attention of drug dealers and cartel enforcers alike.
Snitch feels like a missed opportunity. The movie really fails to work because the characters are all one dimensional. Undercover cop movies like The Departed and Donnie Brasco work because they show the allure of being a gangster. The protagonists in those movies discover that the criminal organizations they’re infiltrating are composed of charismatic, likable people who also happen to be coldblooded sociopaths. The more the protagonists are drawn in, the more they become like the guys they’re trying to capture until the line between cop and criminal are completely blurred.
That moral ambiguity makes these kinds of movies compelling. That moral ambiguity isn’t present in Snitch. Dwayne Johnson plays a fundamentally decent man with on a fundamentally decent mission, and he never diverges from that role. We never get a sense that he’s even remotely taking pleasure in what he’s doing. We never get a sense that he even feels any empathy or kinship with the people he’s infiltrated. Here, Johnson is unequivocally decent, and he plays the character as an absolute hero. And while the performance itself isn’t bad per se, it’s incredibly boring.
The same can be said for the rest of the performances in the movie. They’re all equally one-note. Michael Kenneth Williams plays a violent drug dealer with no redeeming qualities, Benjamin Bratt plays a shifty cartel kingpin with no redeeming qualities, and Susan Sarandon plays a merciless, opportunistic prosecutor with no redeeming qualities. Aside from Sarandon’s shark-like performance, the remaining women in the film are nagging victims who cry a lot about how the men in their lives are suddenly acting so strangely. The only person allowed to exhibit any range in the movie is Jon Berenthal (best known for playing Shane on The Walking Dead), who plays the reformed drug addict and dealer who serves as John’s introduction to the criminal underworld.
We’re given many scenes of Dwayne Johnson looking pensive and determined, but not a lot of action. The promotional materials emphasize a sequence in which Johnson, shotgun in hand, tears ass down a Midwestern highway in a sixteen wheeler with cartel goons in hot pursuit like something out of The Road Warrior. Unfortunately, that’s pretty much the only action sequence in the movie, and it’s incoherently filmed to boot.
Instead of feeling like a proper gangster movie, Snitch feels like a really high end after school special. There’s a lot of highhanded lecturing going on, but not much in the way of compelling drama or exciting action. In the end, Snitch is simply too polished and safe (it’s rated PG-13) to work as a gritty crime drama and too boring to work as a legitimate action flick.