In a recent interview in New York magazine, director Steven Soderbergh lambasted critics for praising movies he felt weren’t, as he sniffed, “up to snuff.”
“I don’t grade on a curve,” Soderbergh said, implying that movie reviewers do.
Guilty as charged. When looking at the curve for all Dwayne Johnson movies, “Snitch” belongs a little over the hump on the side of the better, more ambitious efforts.
On the curve of the entire pantheon of all movies ever made, slot this action drama just to the left of the mid-point, right alongside hundreds of other recent, by-the-numbers, genre programmers.
Johnson, still known to many fans as “The Rock,” his nom de WWE, plays John Matthews, a hardworking, upstanding, self-made businessman who owns a construction supplies company in Missouri. So how come Matthews is soon climbing behind the wheel of one of his company’s big rig trucks to transport drugs and drug money for a Mexican narcotics cartel and dodging bullets?
It’s all part of a risky plan to free his 18-year old son, Jason (Rafi Gavron), after the youth is set up by a friend and arrested on a drug charge by the feds. When Jason faces a mandatory sentence of at least 10 years behind bars, Matthews makes a deal with the hard-nosed federal prosecutor (Susan Sarandon). Our hero will go undercover to help her nab a drug dealing biggie in exchange for Jason’s freedom. (A title card claims that the film is “inspired by true events.” The word “inspired,” obviously, allows for a lot of wiggle room.)
“Snitch” distinguishes itself from even more generic action films by using as a pivotal plot point a hot topic (the excesses of mandatory sentencing for drug arrests) and by surrounding its pro wrestler-turned-movie star with a phalanx of talented, name supporting players (Sarandon, Benjamin Bratt and Barry Pepper). Also on the plus side, “Snitch” is low on splash-happy blood, gore and bone crunching. And, mercifully, there are — this is way rarer than you’d think — no scenes gratuitously set in a strip joint.
Johnson’s acting is up to the demands made upon him here. Once famous for his ability to raise a single, quizzical eyebrow, he has since advanced to membership in the flared nostrils school of acting, using that action to convey extreme concentration or emotion. When not flaring his nasal cavities in “Snitch,” he mostly registers as stalwartly intense.
What’s most refreshing about “Snitch” is that director-writer Ric Roman Waugh (“Felon”) and co-screenwriter Justin Haythe (“Revolutionary Road”) add a welcome note of complexity by depicting three of their characters as caring fathers. The trio — Wallace, an ex-con employee (Jon Bernthal, of “The Walking Dead”) who helps him, and a drug lord (Bratt) — are otherwise wildly dissimilar and yet the actions of each are clearly guided by concerns for their sons. Somewhere in there, there’s an essay for a budding film critic to write how father-son relationships elevate what seems on the surface to be a routine genre film into … oh, never mind.