“Snitch” is one of the year’s most maddening films. It’s got a killer cast but never uses it to its fullest potential. It has an important political point to make, but loses sight of that point after the first ten minutes. It’s a thriller that hints at gangbusters action, but delivers some of the weakest, most ineptly photographed action scenes in memory. And the promised explosive finale is a huge letdown that’s needlessly convoluted.
Based- very loosely, I’d imagine- on a true story, “Snitch” stars Dwayne Johnson- no longer billed as “The Rock”- as a wealthy trucking magnate who’s driven to extreme measures when his teenaged son Jason is arrested for arranging a drug deal. Thanks to mandatory minimum drug sentences, the son faces a lengthy prison term, unless his estranged dad can come up with a plan. And he does: he’ll infiltrate the underworld as an inexperienced but very musclebound informant, in order to take down higher-level drug lords.
Filmed in Louisiana but set in a unnamed city that’s only ever referred to as “Missouri,” “Snitch” was directed by Ric Roman Waugh, a longtime stuntman whose previous directorial credit was the Stephen Dorff-starring prison movie “Felon.”
I don’t know whether to blame Waugh or cinematographer Dana Gonzales, but the film’s action and fight scenes are just an incoherent mess, even by 2012 Hollywood action standards. Shaky-cam is the order of the day, with the camera jumping all over the place for no reason.
One fight scene focuses on the combatants’ feet, while another is shot mostly in shadow, and at no point during any of the big action and fight sequences do we have any idea who’s standing where or why. I don’t know why directors continue to do this, but I really wish they’d stop, and start making their movies, you know, watchable.
The film’s other big mistake is that it keeps escalating its plot in order to set up what looks to be an exciting ending, but ends with a series of nonsensical plot twists instead.
The supporting cast is the movie’s biggest strength by far. Jon Bernthal- Shane from The Walking Dead- has a good turn as an ex-con employee who helps out Johnson, while none other than Omar himself, Michael K. Williams, plays a top local drug dealer, and Benjamin Bratt is sufficiently menacing as a big-shot Mexican drug cartel boss. Susan Sarandon is suitably smarmy as a politically ambitious federal prosector, while the always welcome Barry Pepper plays a DEA agent, wearing an unfortunate chin beard that’s seemingly a homage to another veteran of WWE, Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart.
On the other hand, Melina Kanakaredes, as Johnson’s former wife and Nadine Velazquez as his current one, are both given little do besides cry and look scared. And Jason is played by Rafi Gavron, the Israeli actor who played one of Michael Cera’s bandmates in “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist,” and is wholly unconvincing as someone whose father is half African-American and half-Samoan, as Johnson is.
There’s also pretty huge plot hole, right there in the first scene: We see Jason on a Skype call with his buddy, who tries to convince him to have a huge drug shipment shipped to his house. Jason is noncommittal before the friend hangs up; in the next scene the drugs arrive and the DEA, acting on the friend’s tip, comes to arrest Jason. Wouldn’t that Skype call have been recorded, and wouldn’t Jason’s lawyer introduce it as exculpatory evidence?
It’s good to see a Hollywood film cast a critical eye at the folly of mandatory minimum drug sentencing, which end up giving ridiculously long sentences to first-term, nonviolent drug offenders. But the film mostly uses the idea as a setup for the action. And even worse, it isn’t especially interested in questioning the drug war itself, considering it builds towards the hero helping the government take down a huge drug cartel.