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Review: Too much talk and not enough action in 'Snitch'

Dwayne Johnson plays a dad packing an 18-wheeler who agrees to infiltrate and rat on a drug gang in hopes of freeing his imprisoned son. It's preachy, earnest and based on a true story.

February 22, 2013|By Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times Film Critic
  • Dwayne Johnson stars in "Snitch," which has a shot at winning the box office this weekend.
Dwayne Johnson stars in "Snitch," which has a shot at winning… (Summit Entertainment )

If you believe the trailers, "Snitch," the new crime drama starring Dwayne Johnson, is a jampacked action thriller. His weapon of choice: a giant snarling big rig, all the better to run the bad guys down. But what the movie is really about is a war-on-drugs tactic that offers early release to convicts willing to snitch on someone else.

Though 18-wheelers and reckless driving are definitely involved, there is not nearly as much action as most fans of the increasingly polished Rock will be expecting. There is, however, a good bit of legalese being parsed. Maybe it should be called "Bait and Snitch."

The choice to spend so much time with the talk, instead of walking the walk, comes as something of a surprise from stuntman-turned-director Ric Roman Waugh. What he touched on in 2008's "Felon" has become the main course in "Snitch." The filmmaker, who shares screenplay credit with Justin Haythe, seems driven to stories of justice abused by those charged with keeping it, and the upright citizens who often pay the price.

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Though liberties were taken with the PBS "Frontline" report that inspired "Snitch," many facts remain. All the talking would be fine, but the dialogue is preachy, the drama too earnest and the action kind of sluggish, though it's hard not to get a jolt when Johnson jumps behind the wheel.

Set somewhere within driving distance of Mexico, "Snitch" tackles a tainted drug distribution case. Eighteen-year-old Jason (Rafi Gavron) has been set up but refuses to do the same to someone else. That means doing time — 10 years mandatory — even though he didn't order all those Ecstasy pills delivered to his house.

What's an absentee dad with a ton of guilt and a trucking company to do? If it's John Matthews (Johnson), the answer is to barter himself for his son. Matthews manages to broker a deal with U.S. attorney Joanne Keeghan (Susan Sarandon) to infiltrate and inform on a local drug gang in exchange for an early release for his son.

Good to know there's a friends-and-family plan for jail time, especially since a federal prison is no place to raise a kid. Jason seems to have suffered a new round of beatings — and bad makeup — every time Dad shows up promising to make things right.

Like his character, Johnson keeps walking in those good-guy shoes in one movie after another. He does seem to fit the bill. There is a steadiness to the actor that is central to his appeal, no doubt due in part to his size — Johnson always looks massive and solid on screen. Still, it would be fun to see what might happen if a director pushed him for more. In "Snitch," there's no pushing the stand-up guy,

The set-up, however, is a pretty good one. Matthews, a former long-distance driver, now owns a trucking company. It won't take much for him to start moving drugs, money or anything else illegal. All he needs is an introduction to the underworld. And unlike his son, Matthews is more than happy to put an innocent man in the middle. Daniel Cruz (Jon Bernthal), an ex-con on his work crew, does just fine.

One intro leads to another and soon the U.S. attorney is looking at Matthews like he's the perfect pyramid scheme for her ambitious drug-arrest plans. Sarandon's Keeghan is a little too brittle to be believable. But an excellent Barry Pepper hanging around the edges makes all the waiting and talking more bearable. He plays agent Billy Cooper, who first busted Jason, and seems to be the only one watching Matthews' back as the big man digs deeper and deeper into the drug scene.

Though most of the friction is on the road or in the halls of justice, Matthew faces drama on the home front too. His current wife, Vanessa (Lela Loren), is worried that he'll end up dead. His ex-wife, Sylvie (Melina Kanakaredes), worries son Jason will end up dead first. I was just worried that with all the trucking and talking, "Snitch" would run out of gas. One of us was right.

betsy.sharkey@latimes.com

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