Thursday, February 28, 2013

Don't Stop Snitchin'

Professional wrestlers crossing the chasm into acting has been around for so long, we’ve don’t realize just how much they’ve influenced the films we enjoy. Many have had nice, profitable careers in the film industry, or at the very least have owned one big, memorable role that has survived the test of time. Jesse “The Body” Ventura (Predator), “Rowdy” Roddy Piper (They Live), Andre “The Giant” Roussimoff (Princess Bride) and Hulk Hogan (Mr. Nanny) all proved their adaptability outside of the squared circle back in the eighties and nineties. In more recent years however, talents such as John Cena (The Marine) have struggled to break through into the mainstream. But while many have failed to make it big, one that stands as an unquestioned success and is undeniably the poster child for such transitions is Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who first surfaced as a performer for World Wrestling Entertainment (then World Wrestling Federation) back in 1995. As a multiple-time World Champion, Johnson gained such a following that when he finally did go over to making movies in 2001’s The Mummy Returns, his popularity garnered him almost instant success. Like Hogan and Arnold Schwarzenegger (who of course was a world-renowned bodybuilder before he turned to acting) before him, he peppered his roles with variety, switching between heavy action (Walking Tall) to family fare (The Tooth Fairy), and while some of his projects have flown well under the radar, for the most part Johnson has been successful thanks to his rich charisma, a willingness to experiment and an actual talent for performing in the medium.

These abilities work heavily in favor of Snitch, the first wide-released feature film from stuntman-turned-director Ric Roman Waugh. In it, Johnson plays John Matthews, a successful businessman and father whose son Jason (Rafi Gavron) is arrested in connection with conspiracy to distribute ecstasy, and is looking at ten years in prison unless he agrees to flip evidence on any other drug dealers in order to reduce his sentence. This is difficult as Jason doesn’t actually know any other lawbreakers, except for the “friend” who pointed a finger at him. Desperate to get his son safely out of prison, Johnson makes a deal with prosecuting attorney Joanne Keeghan (Susan Sarandon) and goes undercover to gain evidence on suspected drug dealers, thanks to an introduction by reformed ex-con Daniel James (Joe Bernthal). While John manages to infiltrate the criminal underworld, he is surprised to be scouted by the Mexican drug cartel who wants to use his company’s big rigs to transport drugs and money. While success in implicating such high-ranking drug lords would get Jason freed immediately, John might not live long enough to see it happen.

One aspect you might not expect to be Snitch’s strong suit is its acting core, but that’s one of its surprising advantages. While Johnson is at times noticeably larger than his co-stars, he never pretends to be some kind of avenging warrior, but instead does everything he can to portray a perfectly normal man whose only worldly concerns are the stability of his business and the safety of his family. His fellow actors also lend considerable depth to what could have been one-note characters, and while none are adequately explored, many of them stand out due to the strength of their performances. Bernthal and Michael K. Williams work wonders at playing past and present criminal types, while on the other side of the law are talented character actors Sarandon and Barry Pepper as a Congress-aspiring prosecutor and hard-nosed DEA agent, respectively. Finally, Benjamin Bratt plays delightfully against type as a drug cartel enforcer making things more difficult for everybody. Waugh does a great job not only in casting his people but setting up clues that hint to the backgrounds of his characters without feeling the need to outright explain every little detail concerning their lives. This ability to actually pace the development of characters is a welcome change from the norm, and with Johnson leading a very competent cast, all you need is a good story for them to carry.

Surprisingly, while the trailer might make you think that Snitch is an action-heavy, character-light story playing to the same crowds that have avoided Bullet to the Head or The Last Stand in the past month, the truth is that this movie is more character-driven drama than testosterone-fueled action flick. This isn’t to say that the movie is boring; just the opposite, in fact. There are only two scenes approaching heavy action, and neither is enormously essential to the film as a whole. Both of those scenes are easily overshadowed by great character-building scenes and a righteous tale bemoaning the controversial (and of questionable effectiveness) Mandatory Minimum laws, which are the main focus of the tale. While the screenplay (by Justin Haythe and then rewritten by Waugh) isn’t as book-smart or realistic as, say, HBO’s crime series The Wire, it does feel surprisingly researched and very, very clever in the way it parcels out information. For instance, we never see first-hand what happens to John’s son during his stay in prison, and we only get a glimpse during his parents’ brief visits. The story is not without its miscues; everything moves a bit too quickly, and believability was cut way back in packing a LOT of plot into a sub-two-hour experience. In fact, Snitch might have worked better as a television miniseries than it does as a feature film, perhaps on one of the more forward-thinking networks like AMC or the aforementioned HBO.

But regardless of what it could or should be, Snitch is what it is: a smart (but not incomprehensible), fun (but not silly), thoroughly entertaining movie trip. It’s an “important message” movie, and while it’s one of the better-done ones in recent memory, you still have to accept and take into account that this might not be the movie you imagined going in. Though it may not be the best or most enjoyable of his films, Johnson proves once again that talent is talent, no matter the source. Maybe not a must-see in theaters, but it does come up at #6 for the year, and can calm your Rock-craving until the new GI Joe movie hits or Fast and Furious 6 comes out this summer. At the very least, this is one you won’t regret giving a shot when the time is right.

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