I'm not going to lie: I happen to be a committed fan of Dwayne Johnson as an actor, whether he's doing action work, comedy, or even a somewhat serious drama. Believe me, I know the man has starred in some true stinkers, but if one of his movies tanks, it's not because he isn't trying. More importantly, I'm impressed at the way he's managed to career and role choices. Lately, he seems to have the attitude that he'll do one for his fans that have been loyal to him since his wrestling days as The Rock, and one to help round him out as a performer. The improvements in his acting have been noticeable, and he's even done a couple of films where he's able to combine somewhat serious dramatic work with a bit of action thrown in.
A couple of years ago, Johnson did a really interesting revenge b-movie called FASTER (which also starred Billy Bob Thornton and Maggie Grace), and I loved that film for the way Johnson played his character with a quiet rage. There was a lot more acting going on than the marketing would have led you to believe, and now Johnson has another film, SNITCH, that features just a couple of action-oriented sequences and a whole lot of impressive inner torment from Johnson as John Matthews, owner of a fairly successful construction materials company in Missouri whose son Jason (from his first marriage to Melina Kanakaredes) has been arrested for dealing drugs after a friend of his mailed him a package loaded with pills.
John and Jason (Rafi Gavron) don't talk much, but John wants to make things right by getting his kid out of jail. A representative (Susan Sarandon) from the US Attorney's office says that the kid gets a mandatory minimum of 10 years, unless he rats out and sets up his friends, in which case his sentence will be reduced. Jason won't do it, but John (using his pull in the community as a wealthy business owner) makes a deal to find a local drug dealer if it means getting his son free sooner. I can't imagine a scenario where this would be allowed, but apparently it happened since a title card at the beginning of the film alerts us that this story is "based on true events."
Since John sometime hires ex-cons to work for his shipping business, he goes through the files of his employees and finds Daniel (Jon Bernthal, formerly of "The Walking Dead"), a two-striker who was in prison for narcotics and approaches him about introducing John to a drug connection named Malik (Michael K. Williams of "The Wire" and "Boardwalk Empire"). Malik agrees to let John transport drugs for him in one of his company's semis as a test run. If he completes the job, more drugs and bigger payouts will come.
Thankfully, the DEA (led by Barry Pepper's Agent Cooper, whose scraggly beard would make him perfect for any number of redneck reality shows) is watching and listening, but when he hears Malik mention that the drug supplier (a man known as El Topo, played by Benjamin Bratt) wants to meet John, Agent Cooper decides not to bust Malik and instead wait for the bigger fish.
Now, up to this point in the story, there has been exactly one sort-of action sequence involving a brief shootout where John is meant to pick up the supply, and you've probably guessed that Snitch is fairly story heavy. That's actually a very good thing. It gives Johnson a chance to play the concerned parent, loving husband (to his new wife, played by FLIGHT's Nadine Velazquez), and out-of-his-element drug mule. What's even more surprising is that the film is directed by former stunt coordinator Ric Roman Waugh, who has directed a couple of smaller features, but is smart enough not to force the action into this somewhat interesting narrative. There's a fairly insane and expertly staged car chase sequence in the film's final act, but action certainly doesn't dominate the work.
The film only barely crosses into "no way did that happen" territory once or twice, as it would appear the filmmakers wanted to make SNITCH feel mostly plausible, and they succeed for the most part. Johnson is actually more interesting here when he's holding back, letting the drug dealers think they own him and are running the show. His endgame is getting his son out of prison (where he is being brutalized, we're told), and he's willing to take a few punches and be humiliated to make that happen. I was also really thrilled to see Bernthal get such a sizable role in this film; he's a terrific actor, and his character has even more to lose than John since he's an ex-con.
One of the biggest surprises is the film's PG-13 rating. I thought for sure the film had earned a soft R rating, but I guess all the bloodshed, drug usage and language get a pass because there's no nudity. SNITCH is a moderately complex, usually smart, certainly well-acted, tense piece that is worthy of a few eye rolls but still manages to stay interesting and entertaining because it knows the value of dialing things back a few notches. It's a surprisingly strong entry for Oscar weekend, especially considering the studios save their absolute worst for this point on the release schedule. I know that sounds like faint praise, but it's actually sincere.