Friday, February 22, 2013

In Theaters: SNITCH (2013)

(US/United Arab Emirates - 2013)

Directed by Ric Roman Waugh.  Written by Justin Haythe and Ric Roman Waugh.  Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Susan Sarandon, Benjamin Bratt, Barry Pepper, Jon Bernthal, Michael K. Williams, Melina Kanakeredes, Nadine Velazquez, Rafi Gavron, David Harbour, Harold Perrineau, Lela Loren. (PG-13, 113 mins)

SNITCH purports to be "inspired by true events," which really means a 2004 profile on the PBS series FRONTLINE about the increase in convicted drug traffickers turning informant to get their sentences reduced.  That supplies the foundation of this preposterous but undeniably entertaining thriller with Dwayne Johnson as John Matthews, the owner of a successful Missouri construction company, a self-made man with a hot young wife (Nadine Velazquez), an impossibly adorable young daughter, and an all-around charmed life.  Matthews is informed by his ex-wife Sylvie (Melina Kanakeredes) that their 18-year-old son Jason (Rafi Gavron) has been arrested and faces federal charges of drug trafficking after he's pressured into accepting a package of 2000 Ecstasy pills sent by his buddy.  The reluctant Jason was only supposed to "hold on to it" until his buddy got back to town, but the buddy was nabbed by the feds while trying to ship it and agreed to name Jason as a co-distributor in exchange for a lighter sentence.  Jason's lawyer (David Harbour) tells him he can do the same if he agrees to give the feds information on any other drug dealers, but he doesn't know of any and refuses to take part in setting someone up.  A desperate Matthews goes to U.S. attorney Joanne Keeghan (Susan Sarandon) with an absurd proposition:  he'll be the snitch who infiltrates the area drug operation in exchange for getting Jason a reduced sentence.

Perhaps recognizing the implausibility of the situation, the film does include a scene where Matthews tries to pull off a sting on his own, naturally getting his ass beat in the process.  But the script by director Ric Roman Waugh and REVOLUTIONARY ROAD screenwriter Justin Haythe offers an unusual amount of character development for this type of film.  SNITCH sets up the basic premise fairly quickly but then gives the actors some time and space to establish relationships and make them into fully-realized characters that the audience can care about.  Johnson is consistently underrated as an actor and he's very good here as a man estranged from his son (who resents his father so much that he uses Sylvie's maiden name) and feeling the guilt of always being too focused on his career and his business and now that he's where he wants to be in his life, has traded in his old family for a newer, younger one in a huge house in the suburbs.  It's the guilt of never being there for his son that drives Matthews to such extreme actions now.  And he's not above using people if it means getting what he wants, particularly in the way he goads Daniel (Jon Bernthal), one of his warehouse employees, into helping him.  Daniel is an ex-con with two trafficking convictions who's trying to make a new start with his wife (Lela Loren) and son.  Daniel's got two strikes, and if he does anything, he's locked up for life.  Matthews pressures Daniel, offering him $20,000 if he gets him an introduction into the trafficking underworld, under the pretense that the business is struggling and he's looking to supply his trucks to any local organization that might require them.  Matthews tells Daniel nothing of Jason's situation, and Daniel could really use the money to move his family out of the dangerous hood where they presently reside.

Daniel introduces Matthews to area drug kingpin Malik (the great Michael K. Williams of THE WIRE and BOARDWALK EMPIRE), and eventually gets all the evidence requested by Keeghan and undercover DEA agent Cooper (Barry Pepper, sporting a ridiculous goatee), but when Malik namedrops Mexican cartel honcho El Topo (Benjamin Bratt), Cooper calls off the bust, sensing, along with the ambitious Keeghan, who's gunning for a Senate seat, a bigger fish if they wait it out.  This forces Matthews to continue lying to his family and to Daniel, and putting them all at risk by going after El Topo.

Waugh, a veteran stuntman who's directed a handful of films over the last decade or so, seems to have an interest in stories about those mishandled by the justice system:  his last film, 2008's FELON, was a mostly forgettable but occasionally interesting prison drama that had ambition beyond the usual DTV fare, with Stephen Dorff as a family man who kills a home intruder but still ends up going to prison on murder charges.  Though the film offered Val Kilmer wearing one of the worst glued-on goatees ever seen in a movie (apparently, ludicrous facial hair is to Waugh what women's feet are to Tarantino), it seemed to be trying a bit harder than most of its type, with a quietly powerful supporting performance by Sam Shepard as a retired prison guard who can't let go of the job and finds he misses talking to the lifers he's gotten to know as friends after 30 years.  SNITCH has similar levels of complex characterization, particularly with Bernthal's Daniel, and though some may regard it as unimportant and slowing the story down, it contributes to the overall impact of the film, giving the people and their situations a certain degree of gravity and consequence.  It would've been easy to just have The Rock morph overnight into a hardass vigilante single-handedly taking on a Mexican drug cartel, but Waugh finds a good balance between serious drama and hard-hitting action.  And how refreshing is it, especially after last week's cartoonishly inane A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD debacle, to find strong characterization and human fallibility in a modern action thriller?

I don't mean to make SNITCH sound like Ten Best of 2013 material or some new classic or anything.  It is dumb on occasion (do we need to see Matthews sitting at his computer reading the Wikipedia page for "Drug cartel"?), and stripped to its bare bones and required plot points, it's a compelling but largely predictable couple of hours that's a little constrained by its PG-13 rating.  But it shows that with a little care and some effort, you can take something formulaic and predictable and give it some occasional depth and create something with a little more meat to it than you might expect going in.  As a director and writer, Waugh's made some noticeable strides in the five years since FELON.  If SNITCH is any indication, he might be worth keeping an eye on.

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