Sunday, March 24, 2013

Snitch / ***½ (PG-13)

John Matthews: Dwayne Johnson
Daniel James: Jon Bernthal
Agent Cooper: Barry Pepper
Joanne Keeghan: Susan Sarandon
Malik: Michael K. Williams
Jason Collins: Rafi Gavron
Sylvie Collins: Melina Kanakaredes
Analisa: Nadine Velazquez
Juan Carlos ‘El Topo’ Pintera: Benjamin Bratt

Summit Entertainment presents a film directed by Ric Roman Waugh. Written by Justin Haythe and Waugh. Running time: 112 min. Rated PG-13 (for drug content and sequences of violence).

America’s supposed War on Drugs is one that it seems we’ve fought ever since I was a kid in the early 80s. I suppose it really started earlier than that, however. The way it has been fought has been criticized just as long. Tens of thousands of citizens are arrested in this war every year, yet the problem persists, often with escalating violence and diminishing effects. The problem is that it is a war against human nature and ambitious ideas. I’m not sure warring against such things can ever result in victory.

“Snitch” is a movie wrapped up in the problems of this idealistic war, although it isn’t really about the war in general as it is a telling of a very specific story within that war. It shows us a Missouri teenager who is contacted by a friend and told a package will be delivered to his house containing a few thousand pills. He’s wary of getting involved. The friend assures him he can have some and earn money dealing some. The kid expresses his discomfort with the situation, but when the package arrives, he signs for it. Within minutes the DEA is knocking at his door.

The boy is the son of a divorced couple, John Matthews and Sylvie Collins. Despite his parents’ differences, they both love him and see that he has been set up. They learn of strict laws with specific guidelines that don’t allow for sentencing loopholes that were developed to help authorities bag high-level drug dealers. The dealers, however, have been able to exploit the arrest loopholes of the laws to ensnare mostly first time offenders through frame ups while the real players never get their hands dirty. Because the sentencing laws are so strict, John’s son is looking at 10 to 30 years in prison on an intent to distribute charge for drugs he didn’t even want to possess. His only way out would be to set up someone, just as he was.

That’s the part of the movie that questions our approach on the War on Drugs. The rest of the film is pure storytelling. John, the boy’s father, owns a large construction company, which brings him into contact with many employees who are former convicts. He makes a deal with the lead prosecutor to go undercover for the DEA to reduce his son’s sentence. He’ll use his business as a front for shipments for a local distributor. He must sell this idea as a legitimate business proposition to a former dealer who can get him in with the local kingpin.

Dwayne Johnson plays John as a straightforward dramatic character. It’s important to note that this is not a typical Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson role. This is a role that proves the former wrestler turned Arnold Schwarzenegger action hero replacement has legitimate acting chops. It is not a role that requires a muscle-bound action hero. Although, it might’ve been interesting to see more of an everyman in the role, Johnson is well up to the task of carrying a vehicle that focuses more on the drama of the situation than the action.

Jon Bernthal, Shane of AMC’s “The Walking Dead”, is the ex-con whose trust John must secure in order to work his way into the drug trade. Director Ric Roman Waugh and his co-screenwriter Justin Haythe are wise not to leave Berthal’s character as just a tool of the plot. His situation is given almost equal weight to John’s. John puts him in a terrible position as a con who already has two strikes on his record. Bernthal handles well the tough emotional terrain of an ex-con trying to turn his life around. Bernthal allows the audience to sympathize with another side to this story. He wants to go straight, but just being approached by John pushes him into a corner that could jeopardize the new leaf he’s turned over.

Waugh surrounds these performances with a stellar cast of supporting characters. Susan Sarandon plays the prosecutor as a politician that is balancing more than just the scales of justice in the middle of a re-election campaign. Barry Pepper is the DEA agent who appears worn to the bone from working within a system that is more about the politics of the issue of drugs as it is about the justice involved. Michael K. Wilson is the local dealer who understands more about the life that he’s chosen than most representations of the thug life are willing to offer. And Benjamin Bratt is the kingpin whose success depends upon more business and shadow warfare savvy than just about any other profession out there.

The movie culminates in a highway chase action sequence that is made from the action recipes more common on this genre’s menu, but it is efficient and doesn’t overstay its welcome. The rest of “Snitch” is a highly considered drama that doesn’t rely on formal. It isn’t as dense or detailed as such drug war criticisms as Steven Soderbergh’s “Traffic”, but it’s a surprisingly substantial film coming from the careers of Johnson and Waugh, who made their names on mindless action-oriented fare. 

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