“Inspired by true events,” reads the opening title scrawl of director Ric Roman Waugh’s Dwayne (“The Rock”) Johnson vehicle Snitch. Uh-oh. Avid moviegoers will no doubt infer that the film we’re about to see must be so unbelievable that the filmmakers were forced to open with this statement just to get us to buy into the premise.
No surprises: that’s precisely the problem with Snitch, a gritty, low(ish)-budget crime tale made with some DIY flair by director Waugh but saddled with a central premise so outlandish that the film never really catches on. “But,” you might think “it’s based on a true story!” That may be enough to save the film for some viewers. The rest of us know better.
That’s a shame, because there is an element of real life that the film targets: minimum mandatory sentencing in felony drug cases, which was introduced in the Reagan-era War on Drugs and dictates equal sentencing for all defendants regardless of the circumstances surrounding their crime.
In effect, this shifts power away from judges and into the hands of prosecutors, who typically overcharge defendants, threatening them with unusually high sentences in order to get them to plead guilty or accept a plea bargain.
This is a topic that deserves attention. Being used as the premise of an action movie starring The Rock probably isn’t the best kind of attention, but hey, at least the film has its heart in the right place.
As Snitch opens, 18-year-old Jason Collins (Rafi Gavron) receives a call from his best friend, asking him to sign for a shipment of narcotics. Jason agrees, and hello DEA: 30 years in prison. 10 if he pleads guilty. Any other options, asks Jason’s father John (The Rock) and his ex-wife Sylvie (Melina Kanakaredes)? Well, he could turn informant and get it down to a year…
And that’s exactly what happened to him: Jason’s friend was caught and set him up to lower his own sentence. Now, that sounds a lot like entrapment, and you wonder why the DEA would be interested in Jason, who doesn’t even know anyone involved in drugs, but hey: I guess it helps out their numbers.
Now, credibility is already an issue here. But it gets worse. Not only can’t Jason turn on anyone, but he won’t set anyone up, either. So father John, willing to do whatever it takes to get his son out regardless of the consequences, strikes up a deal with US Attorney Joanne Keeghan (Susan Sarandon): he will go undercover and deliver an actual dealer to the DEA.
Uh-huh. This sounds ridiculous, and it is: there are some very good reasons why authorities wouldn’t allow a third party to turn informant to reduce someone else’s sentence, and very good reasons why John shouldn’t go through with this anyway. What exactly does he expect will happen after he rats out the dealer? By the time Snitch has established its plot, it has lost all credibility.
That’s too bad, because the rest of the film is a tense, well-crafted piece of work, with some excellent supporting performances by Barry Pepper as an undercover DEA agent, The Walking Dead’s Jon Bernthal as an employee John uses to make a connection, The Wire’s Michael K. Williams as a mid-level dealer, and Benjamin Bratt as his supplier.
Writer-director Ric Roman Waugh, a former stuntman, previously made Felon, a tight little prison drama that was better than it had any right to be. He presents Snitch with the kind of gritty authenticity that belies his improbable script; frenetic camerawork (by Dana Gonzales) adds to the atmosphere, but may be a distraction for some.
If you can overlook how it gets there, Snitch becomes a nifty little thriller with a focus on character over action that features some of The Rock’s finest work as an actor. But that implausible premise is one tough pill to swallow.