Selling a 6'5", former wrestler dubbed "The Rock," as an "everyman" is no easy feat, yet writer/director Ric Roman Waugh's Snitch manages to organically knock Dwayne Johnson down a few notches. Johnson gracefully accepts the challenge, delivering his best performance to date as a dad grappling with a drug cartel in hopes of saving his son from imprisonment. The twist is that Johnson is anything but a superhero — he doesn't know how to work a gun, he can't drive a car at 300 mph, and he has no clue how to kick ass. What he does have is compassion for his family, and that's enough of a backbone to turn Snitchinto a better-than-average thriller.
After being caught at the center of an ecstasy-dealing sting operation, Jason (Rafi Gavron) is hauled away by the DEA and faced with 10 years in prison. His father, John (Johnson) begs a local politician (Susan Sarandon) for leniency, but he finds no luck: the only way around the mandatory minimum sentence laws in the U.S. is to "snitch" for the government, helping the feds find and capture bigger drug dealers. Since Jason isn't actually connected to the drug world, John proposes the next best thing: he'llgo hunting.
Waugh takes his time introducing us to the world of Snitch, carefully laying the tracks with research and character, so when the action picks up, it doesn't fly off the rails. Make no mistake: this is not a Faster sequel, a script giving Johnson the go-ahead to plow through faceless bad guys for two hours. There are stakes, and Waugh rips them from the headlines, the first third of Snitch feeling more like a newspaper exposé than an action movie. It all works to Johnson's favor, who settles in nicely in the imperfect suburban life and the dangerous underbelly he uncovers. With lots of whos, whats, and wheres to juggle, Snitchwinds up erring on the side of exposition too often, but it's all to add gravity to Johnson's insurmountable task.
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Snitch kicks into gear when John enlists his employee Daniel (Jon Bernthal) to break him into the world of drug smuggling. John makes Daniel, an ex-convict looking to stay out of trouble for the sake of his family, a deal he can't refuse, and the two embark on a mission to put ring leader Malik (Michael Kenneth Williams) in the crosshairs of the cops. With natural camera work and a welcome lack of ham (no "GIVE ME BACK MY SON!"s), Johnson and Bernthal capably build tension by fostering quiet moments that explode in their faces. Daniel routinely has to explain to his wife that he's out of trouble — a straight-up lie that ends in meltdown. In a scene early in the film, John heads to the wrong side of the tracks to dig up information, resulting in a gang of kids beating him to the round and stealing his car. Johnson as a low status character is a real shock in Snitch. When The Rock falls, he falls hard.
As teased in the trailer, Snitch does escalate, and the stuntman-turned-filmmaker Waugh competently stages his set pieces. It's a rarity: the shootouts and car chases in the movie feel like a backdrop for drama, not randomly placed moments of bombastic chaos. Snitch is high-octane in every department. The movie has rough edges — in an effort to complicate the situation, the movie steers away from the main plot to show a clash between Sarandon's morally-depraved politician and an undercover DEA agent (Barry Pepper, sporting a wild beard and another energetic performance). It's interesting, but not as captivating as Johnson's material, which builds momentum and remains gripping to the final moments. Snitch presents a terrifying scenario, worsened by the fact that it's really happened to guys a lot smaller than Dwayne Johnson.
What do you think? Tell Matt Patches directly on Twitter @misterpatches and read more of his reviews on Rotten Tomatoes!
[Photo Credit: Summit Entertainment]
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Posters for his films may insist otherwise, but Dwayne Johnson will always be synonymous with "The Rock." His wrestling persona is ingrained in his identity — even when he's starring in a serious drama like his new movie Snitch, it's impossible not to slip and call it a "Rock movie." He entered the pop culture consciousness with his WWF handle, and through butt-kicking movie roles, has only solidified the title.
The fortifying moniker exudes confidence and strength, an essential part of what makes Johnson one of the go-to leading men for the next wave of action movies. It also provides Johnson with his greatest struggle: being considered an actor, not a wrestler-turned-actor.
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Johnson tells Hollywood.com that 10 years ago, he "was taken serious in a way only because I was very fortunate to be successful in another area." People took chances on him, but no one felt safe doing so. "It was a big risk. I didn't have any acting experience. The only thing I knew is that I was willing to put in the work and I wanted to be a good actor."
The fight for legitimacy is Johnson' real life action sequence, a mano a mano fight with filmmakers and audiences to be cast him in roles that require more than just swinging swords and punching bad guys in the face. His search for meaty material made him the perfect collaborator for Snitchdirector Ric Roman Waugh.
"I feel the connection with Ric, for sure," says Johnson. "He's a special guy. What you get with his films is authenticity. Sometimes it gets dirty and gritty. He likes it that way and I like it that way." Working with Waugh, Johnson found an in to a true story that could star a man of his stature, that would also knock him down a few levels in the status department. The actor couldn't wait to dive in. "It was really special to play a man who lived and did something unique and special in terms of going through hell to protect his son. Not only that, but has great vulnerability and great emotion. And not only that, in the face of crisis, in real world living, he crumbles."
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As Johnson searches for parts that will evolve his career, he continues to go back to his old movies, rewatching and studying them for inspiration. Yes, even the first ones — like his breakout role as the man-turned-monster the Scorpion King in 2002 's The Mummy 2.
"Making the transition… that role — part scorpion, part man — that launched my career. We've all got to start somewhere."
Follow Matt Patches on Twitter @misterpatches
[Photo Credit: Summit Entertainment]
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