I have a longstanding respect for and really enjoy Dwayne Johnson, so I went into Snitch expecting not to hate it, 2/5 stars. I know that ain’t much, but it didn’t look particularly substantive, so that was the baseline (though “inspired by” true events, if that’s all that’s said, it often still qualifies as fiction).
Then a funny thing happened, one that in over 2700+ titles hasn’t occurred quite this way before: the stars just kept climbing, step-by-step, hand over fist, as the film progressed. I could actually feel it… “hey this isn’t bad at all”… “you know, this is pretty good”… “whoa, good job”… “that was really well done”… and so on, half-star by half-star until here we are at 4/5. I think I’m as surprised as some of you may be!
Let’s get one thing out of the way at the start: the trailer misleads. Accurate in the broad strokes, it implies we’re getting another helping of Dwayne Johnson’s prowess in the action arena, and if you’re seeking furious smackdowns, you’ll feel a bit had. And you’ll be right.
But don’t blame Snitch for the failings of its trailer ~ meet it on its own terms, terms of menace and suspense, and you’ll be well rewarded. And don’t worry, there’s plenty of mayhem to keep things lively.
Snitch vibes along lines of a Roger Donaldson film, he the master of the man minding his own business (here, literally) who finds himself trapped in an upward peril spiral after a decision that he may well have been advised against to begin with (No Way Out, The Bank Job, Seeking Justice). The decision may have been understandable ~ even noble ~ in origin, but it carried with it consequences [arguably] foreseeable given they’re fruit of an ultimately poisoned tree.
Here we meet it in the form of John Matthews (Johnson), self-made success and owner of his own construction company, respectful of his employees, genuine in his affections, and well-regarded in his community. John is also father of two from different marriages, the elder of whom, Jason, has changed his last name to his mother’s maiden, said mother being the spitting image of John’s current wife, only fifteen years older. Hm, no strife there… Said son also resents the fact that John and new family live in a five-figure-square-foot McMansion while he and Mother v1.0 live in a “dump” (which, by the way, resembles that of our inept heroes of Risky Business and Project X, poor suffering boy).
Thus Jason rebels, exercises his youthful belief in being bulletproof, and lands himself facing 10-30 for accepting a package from a friend (now likely shooting an episode of Locked Up Abroad), and John’s paternal instincts kick in with a heavy splash of guilt, compelling him to do whatever it takes to rescue his son. It’s that “whatever it takes” that turns things tricky.
There’s a common standard that states, “Your right to throw a punch ends where my nose begins.” John thinks he’s only punching his own nose and is only too willing to have both eye sockets fractured along with it, but he hasn’t quite grasped the logical possibilities of his plan. Before he knows it, three other parties are swinging punches too, and the noses are those of everyone within six degrees of separation. Including children. Not all his own. Hm. Suddenly this devotion to Jason which seemed ~ and is ~ so noble and without question, somehow now appears to have been equally reckless and unfair. But it’s way too late to cry about that now…
Such is the underpinning of Snitch. It’s a slow burn, a tense, escalating, ever-widening clusterf* of a situation. So John takes a page from the Mitch McDeer playbook, and changes the game. (Here’s that action you’ve been wondering about, and it’s good.) How much of it is true? Hard to say; likely little more than a devoted dad going undercover to help his son, and if that’s all it is, it’s still compelling.
In the interest of full disclosure, I must grant that I was filling in certain elements along the way, recalling the cartel reprisals of Savages and Edward Norton’s depictions of prison in American History X and 25th Hour. Whether this background artificially boosted Snitch’s effectiveness I can’t say, but if you haven’t seen the aforementioned, you can just stipulate that you don’t easily come back from stuff like that, if you come back at all, and either way, you’ll likely curse the day you were born and possibly beg for death before it’s over. (I felt an actual jolt upon seeing a landscaping crew for two solid days after screening Savages).
Snitch is one of those for which unskilled hands could have rendered it flat, campy, or just plain muddled and miscarried (think Contraband). Director Ric Roman Waugh keeps a firm hand on the reins, however, and the result is a clear, relentless march of escalating intensity.
He also modulates the performances beautifully across a deeply talented cast ranging from relative unknowns to major award winners and nominees. Among the accomplished, none are called upon to portray the extraordinary (and indeed some grace the screen for but fleeting glorious moments), but in portraying the ordinary with such understated strength they elevate the film from a paycheck to something of which they may be genuinely proud. (Indeed, were this thing to have gone wrong, it could’ve felt like an SNL skit).
Johnson enjoys a chance to up his acting chops and succeeds nicely; honestly, Nicolas Cage had really better get/stay on his game, because there now exists a bonafide alternative for about 70% of his filmography. The performance of particular note though sits with Michael Kenneth Williams, portraying the most unnerving business partner since Cliff Curtis’ astonishingly effective turn as Smiley in Training Day.
Don’t expect constant loud noises, hollering, and mayhem here; expect threat, tension, pressure, a moment or two of despair, some interesting ethical inquiries should you feel so inclined, and an action-packed break for freedom. (Does it succeed? I’ll never tell.) On these its clearly intended points, trailer typecasting notwithstanding, Snitch definitely succeeds.