When Dwayne Johnson made the transition from wrestler to actor, he preserved a default expression of intense, directed focus. Onscreen or in the ring, Johnson is a man of action, a blunt weapon accustomed to pursuing his goals in the most direct manner imaginable. But the mildly overachieving B-movie Snitch immerses him in a shadowy world where every step he takes to extricate his family from a perilous situation just makes the situation worse. He’s a good man, albeit a flawed, redemption-hungry one, in a bind that seems to grow more hopeless by the moment. Yet just when it appears that Johnson is down for the count, that his dad-of-action can’t possibly survive, he makes a stunning comeback. It turns out wrestling and cinema aren’t so different after all: They’re just two different sweaty, testosterone-soaked forms of hyper-masculine storytelling.
Johnson, who also produced, stars as a father and successful small-business owner who remarried and moved into a snazzy new mansion, leaving his ex-wife and college-bound son to struggle financially and emotionally in his absence. When his son gets busted accepting a shipment of ecstasy pills, Johnson is angry, but also guilty about his part-time parenting. So in a daring move, he turns informant for calculating, pragmatic prosecutor Susan Sarandon by posing as a businessman out to save his failing business by transporting massive shipments of drugs and money. Johnson hopes to win a reduced sentence for his son if he succeeds in bringing down a kingpin or two.
Snitch groans out of the gate. It’s the kind of clunky, exposition-heavy action movie where the protagonist learns about drug cartels by typing “drug cartel” into Wikipedia. But it builds into a moderately engaging character study of men driven to dangerous extremes by desperation, including Jon Bernthal, an ex-con employee of Johnson’s roped into assisting the boss’ descent into drug-running and money-laundering. Snitch begins to find itself with the arrival of Michael K. Williams as a drug dealer who embodies a fascinating, contradictory combination of viciousness and vulnerability. He’s a killer, but he’s also an ex-con living in primal fear of a third strike that will put him away for good, the same fear that motivates Bernthal. Snitch toys with moral ambiguity and fatalism before losing its nerve and delivering the action-movie goods in a climax that hews closer to fantasy than the keenly observed realism of the film’s solid center. Johnson is a consummate entertainer, and he’s adept at giving audiences what they want, even if it’s ultimately to his film’s detriment.