Rated PG-13 for drug content and violence.
To differentiate his movie career from the professional wrestling exertions that made him famous, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson some time ago banished his ring alias from his film credits.
Even so, such cinematic thrill rides as “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island” and “Fast Five” owed more to the cartoon/steroid aesthetic of the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) empire than to the “emphasis on storytelling” championed by the AFI (American Film Institute). Johnson seemed to be cast because he was “The Rock,” not because he was valued as an actor.
“Snitch” is different. Contrary to the suggestion of its misleadingly bombastic trailer, “Snitch” — with Johnson as an executive producer — is not an action movie but a slow-burning and legitimate neo-noir. It’s the type of dark but not despairing feature that might have starred Glenn Ford in the 1950s, although a thriller from six decades ago would not have been obliged to climax with an implausible — if, in this case, well-constructed — sequence of gear-grinding, metal-crunching, bullet-spraying destruction.
“Snitch” also is an earnest “issue” movie. Inspired by a PBS television Frontline documentary, the film functions as a protest against draconian “federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws” for drug offenders.
Helmed by stunt coordinator turned director Ric Roman Waugh (from a script by Waugh and Justin Haythe), “Snitch” presents Johnson as an actor first, physical specimen second.
A convincing and natural screen presence even while radiating intensity, Johnson is John Matthews, a successful construction-company owner in Missouri (the film was shot in Louisiana, of course) whose naive 18-year-old son (Rafi Gavron) faces 10 years in prison after being busted for accepting a shipment of Ecstasy pills.
To reduce his son’s sentence, Matthews makes a deal with a politically ambitious U.S. attorney (Susan Sarandon): He will use his company’s 18-wheelers to become a drug runner, to set up an undercover sting. To do this, he insinuates himself into the local drug milieu, with the help of an ex-con employee (Jon Bernthal, late of AMC’s “The Walking Dead”) and a prayer-bead-fondling inner-city coke kingpin (Michael Kenneth Williams, the memorably monikered African-American gangster, “Chalky White,” on HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire”). At the top of the chain is a drug lord called “El Topo” (Benjamin Bratt).
The storytelling here is so patient the first half of the movie is perhaps more dull than suspenseful. Waugh’s camera set-ups are more functional than interesting, but there’s intelligence at work here, as well as restraint. This is evident in his portrayal of the boss-worker relationship between the Johnson and Bernthal characters, and in the depictions of their home lives. The economic disparity is unstated but apparent. (The kitchen of Matthews’ suburban McMansion appears larger than the entire apartment shared by the ex-con and his wife and son.) The motivations — the troubled son is the product of a messy divorce — are convincing. Perhaps most surprising is that although the Rock resembles the result of a design collaboration between Rodin and Jack Kirby, Johnson is believable as a typically law-abiding man who is out of his depth. In one scene, he suffers a beatdown from a gang of street hoods — a form of physical humiliation he might not have allowed earlier in his movie career.
To save his son, Matthews deceives his employee, endangers his wife and makes a Faustian bargain with self-interested politicians. He invites disaster through hubris and miscalculations, risking his family as well as himself. This is the very stuff of tragedy as well as film noir, even if the pat resolution of “Snitch” isn’t worthy of Fritz Lang, much less Sophocles. Nevertheless, “Snitch” is the rare contemporary genre drama that takes place in a recognizable world, where the laws of physics as well as Murphy’s Law apply, and where the violence, when it erupts, is a thing of consequences, not just spectacle.