What a pleasant surprise. A surprise because you sure expect to find a prototypical action star like Dwayne Johnson – he of the chiselled bod and The Rock monicker and the Fast and Furious pedigree – in a prototypical action flick, and this isn’t. Pleasant because, instead of the usual hero-and-mayhem jive, Snitch is an honest exercise in workmanlike craft. This is to film what ceramic is to floors or Billy is to bookcase or what a third-line centre is to a winning hockey team – hardly great but good and solid and functional.
The script is loosely based on a PBS Frontline documentary that explored a judicial casualty of America’s war on drugs: the practice of mandatory minimum sentencing, a law that too often corrupts the very justice it’s designed to promote. Cut to an otherwise straight-arrow teenager who makes a dumb mistake, accepts a FedExed package from a sort-of friend, then gets busted by the Drug Enforcement Administration for possession of a dealer’s worth of ecstasy. His sentence is 10 years, reducible only if he can “snitch” on someone else, preferably someone on a loftier rung of the drug hierarchy. The kid refuses, partly for ethical reasons and partly for practical ones – he really doesn’t know anyone else.
Enter Dwayne J. as the boy’s father, John. But this time, for all that massive physique, The Rock is a pebble of a fellow, the owner of a construction company, yet not exactly a dab hand on the mean streets. Nevertheless, he approaches the ambitious D.A. (Susan Sarandon) with an offer to hunt up some baddies on his son’s behalf. She smiles a cold non-committal smile, leaving him to Google “drug cartel” and tiptoe off into the demimonde, where he promptly gets beaten up for his troubles.
So far, under the brisk direction of Ric Roman Waugh, the dialogue has a credible ring of truth, as do the dark alleys of the city and the yellow hallways of the serpentine legal system. And still no action yet, just nervous talk and anxious looks. It’s the cinematic equivalent of the short declarative sentence – a no-nonsense style that gets the job done.
Of course, the plot must heat up, and does when John dangles big bucks to tempt an ex-con who is on his crew to do what he fervently doesn’t want to do – to fly crooked again. Reluctantly, the guy (Jon Bernthal) introduces his boss to a mid-level dealer in a dingy den, whereupon the temperature skyrockets thanks to the mere presence of Michael K. Williams. Yes, the Michael K. Williams who so memorably played Omar in The Wire and Chalky in Boardwalk Empire and who, with that devilish scar bisecting his forehead right between those all-knowing eyes, is charisma personified. The man has what few actors possess and all would kill for – an alchemical magic that puts the silver into any screen he’s on.
In fact, with one obvious exception, the cast is uniformly terrific, fattening up even the slimmest roles. Williams, Sarandon, Bernthal, Barry Pepper as a scruffy undercover cop, they all do it. Dwayne Johnson doesn’t because, you know, he really is The Rock, but give him credit for stepping out from behind that ripped corpus and trying. What’s more, when the action does come, it’s not excessive but parcelled out sparingly and served up patiently. Even the chase scene behaves sensibly. A Mack truck acts as a Mack truck should, just lumbering along. And the cars, bless them, don’t chew the scenery here – one rollover and they’re done.
It’s all rather refreshing and even inspiring in its own modest fashion, a tribute to the utilitarian skills of the solid craftsman and the honest journeyman. Me, I’m inspired to write a fan letter to my favourite third-line centre, if only I could remember his name.