Snitch is a movie that doesn't play its marquee star cheap. Dwayne Johnson leaves his preening pro wrestling persona at the door, never doffing his shirt or lifting an eyebrow while playing a guy in way over his head.
You know this isn't "The Rock" when punks roll Johnson's character and he doesn't fight back. Usually it's someone else who winds up leaning on crutches or flinching in fear. Snitch is grittily streetwise, and until its last 20 minutes fairly credible compared to other movies "inspired by" true stories.
Johnson impresses as John Matthews, a construction company owner whose son Jason (Rafi Gavron) gets busted by the DEA for accepting a shipment of ecstasy, set up by a friend saving his own tail. Jason faces 10 years in prison that a steely prosecutor (Susan Sarandon) will reduce if the teenager snitches on someone else. Jason refuses and John volunteers to infiltrate a drug cartel. For a "Rock" fan that's enough to leave a false impression that Snitch is all about butt-whipping.
Director and co-writer Ric Roman Waugh has something else cooking, a crisply detailed yarn about being caught in the middle between law and disorder. Despite his imposing size — Johnson can't hide that — John has no business entering such a high-stakes game. He isn't a former cop, Navy SEAL or some other macho profession such movies use to prepare heroes, or assure the audience they'll survive.
One of the movie's smartest moments occurs when John is introduced to a mid-level dealer (Michael Kenneth Williams), and immediately gets a pistol shoved in his face. John instinctively raises both hands in fearful submission, satisfying the dealer since an aggressive response would be the tip-off of a cop. Movies like Snitch typically don't include such self-doubting specifics, or athlete-actors capable of pulling them off.
In fact, the movie's first action doesn't erupt until an hour in, and John's only contribution is sheer panic causing collateral damage. Even in the finale, when Waugh is inspired more by every other action flick than any true story, John is essentially helpless, operating on trapped-animal instinct. Johnson doesn't look like an everyman but he portrays one convincingly, tears, fears and all.
Lending more emotional depth to Snitch is John's doorman to the drug culture, an employee and ex-con named Daniel James (Jon Bernthal). Daniel has his own son to protect in a tough neighborhood and hard financial times. John doesn't reveal to Daniel why he wants to meet dealers. Compromising this man's pledge to his family to go straight is selfishness making John less than heroic. Again, a smarter choice than movies like Snitch typically make.
There's more to admire here: Sarandon's conflict of interests with the DEA agent (Barry Pepper) assigned to John's case, Waugh's properly measured intrusions of worried wives and Benjamin Bratt's brief but effective turn as the cartel kingpin. But mostly there is Johnson's good performance, more solid than a Rock.
Steve Persall can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow him on Twitter @StevePersall.