- Snitch. Directed by Ric Roman Waugh. Starring Dwayne Johnson, Barry Pepper and Rafi Gavron. Rating: 7 (out of 10)
FOLLOWING the Arnold Schwarzenegger path to fame, Dwayne Johnson has gone from muscle-man to bona-fide actor, dropping "The Rock" from his nameplate for good.
Johnson started out in the WWE arena. He did time in mindless action flicks (Fast and Furious), but also punctuated his resume with child-friendly fare (The Tooth Fairy) in the same way Schwarzenegger ingratiated himself to families with the likes of Kindergarten Cop.
But Snitch might just be a watershed film for Johnson, who proves that he has more to offer than just oiled-up muscle mass or thug-in-a-tutu physical irony, as a father who goes way over his head in the criminal world in order to clear his son's name.
Businessman John Matthews (Johnson) is devastated when he learns that his 18-year-old son is being jailed for a decade for a stupid, first-time offence.
(Rule number one: never carry a package for a friend.) Jason (Rafi Gavron) is offered a more tolerable jail stint if he will perjure himself on the witness stand. Instead, John works out a deal with ambitious U.S. Attorney Joanne Keeghan (Susan Sarandon), who is running for Senate and could use the P.R. boost of a big bust. I'll give you a bad guy, you give me my son.
Only problem? He's just a regular guy and doesn't know where to start. He turns to one of his employees, Daniel (Jon Bernthal, Walking Dead), an ex-con trying to keep himself and his family on the straight and narrow. John exploits Daniel's criminal past to gain entry into the cartel, putting himself and his friend in serious jeopardy.
Keeping an eye out is DEA Agent Billy Cooper (Barry Pepper). Tattooed, fu Manchued, Pepper emerges among the stronger characters in the film, an agent for whom the line between good guy and bad guy has been forever blurred. As John digs himself an increasingly deeper hole, he encounters small players in the drug world (Michael K. Williams, great) and truly big fish (a cool and menacing Benjamin Bratt).
Johnson is convincing in the dramatic scenes, particularly in the prison visitation scenes between father and son, during which Jason reveals some of the trauma of prison while John both girds for battle and falls apart. John is in construction, he's no action hero: we believe that this is a man in way too deep, as conflicted and vulnerable as any parent in a messy situation.
The side plot about dirty politics and Keeghan's keenness to make a deal elevates the plot from standard action movie to dramatic action/thriller.
The screenplay was co-written by Waugh and Justin Haythe (Revolutionary Road), and inspired by true events chronicled in a PBS Frontline documentary about how mandatory sentencing laws were reduced when people ratted on bigger players.
The laws, filmmakers suggest, fill the system with addicts and first-time offenders rather than the people at the top.
But never fear: there are car chases, too, including a doozy involving an 18wheeler. Waugh's pedigree, after all, is as a stuntman who is the child of a famous stuntman, and action sequences are fairly realistic for a film in this genre.
Buoyed by strong supporting characters and a believable plot, Johnson finds himself a candidate for something Schwarzenegger never really laid claim to: dramatic roles. Let's just hope that a gubernatorial run isn't in the actor's immediate future.