What do Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and PBS have in common? The new drama/action thriller Snitch, which is "inspired by true events" or, in other words, on a 1999 Frontline documentary also called "Snitch." That account of the wages of politicized drug laws—including mandatory minimums in sentencing—included the case study of eighteen-year-old Joey Settembrino, a first-time offender who landed a ten-year prison sentence after being entrapped by a friend in a drug sting. On the theory that one good "snitch" deserves another, federal agents enlisted Joey's desperate father to try to entrap bigger fish so his son would be released.
Snitch fictionalizes Settembrino's case, adding spoonfuls of action sugar to make the social message go down. Johnson plays the father, John Matthews, whose son Jason (Rafi Gavron) makes one bad call and winds up in the Big House. This worst-case scenario of a predominately innocent teen suddenly watching his life go down the drain may be a somewhat disingenuous conversation-starter about misbegotten American drug policy, but it's clearly an effective way to turn the screws on urban and suburban theatergoers.
As the owner of a big rig freight shipping outfit, John's in a "good" position to offer drug traffickers an enticing proposition. Entrapping one of his employees, Daniel Cruz (Jon Bernthal of The Walking Dead), John gets a meet with dealer Malik (Michael Kenneth Williams of The Wire), who in turn connects John with Mexican drug cartel head Juan Carlos (Benjamin Bratt). And so the plot passes through two eye-rolling promises: the doubly in-over-his-head upper-middle-class dad telling his son he'll get him out of his prison and telling his employee, "There is no way I'm going to let either side dictate our fates" (cut to John in a gun shop).
Snitch points out the social overlaps amongst the lesser players in this drug plot: both Malik and Daniel are "two-strikers" unwittingly risking their lives for that teen in prison, while Daniel and John both have sons who motivate them to act. Though the film is co-produced by socially progressive Participant Media, Snitch is, above all, an age-old archetype of parental sacrifice born of limitless love.
Stunt coordinator turned director Ric Roman Waugh shows his sure hand with the impressive, if overblown, driving stunts, which constitute most of the limited action in what's otherwise an indie-flavored thriller. Waugh shares co-screenwriting credit with Justin Haythe, who recently adapted Revolutionary Road for the screen; Haythe's background as a novelist (his The Honeymoon was nominated for the Man Booker Prize) may account for why Snitch, despite being seriously far-fetched in its details, remains surprisingly, consistently absorbing.
The cast helps. For a man of not unlimited acting talent, Johnson shows he has a good understanding of his range and a firm handle on his career, this role being just the sort he ought to be playing (when not anchoring goofy family comedies, of course). That said, he'd be nowhere without his supporting cast, which also includes the stalwart Barry Pepper as a DEA agent and Susan Sarandon as a slippery U.S. Attorney. In its modern way, Snitch is almost Dickensian in its intent, missing no opportunity for melodramatic confrontation as it puts a (baby) face on a social ill.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]