Snitch (United States, 2013)

February 21, 2013
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Snitch Poster

Someone please get director Ric Roman Waugh a tripod! Snitch might be a passable action-thriller but it's hard to say because every time an action scene comes along, the image shakes so badly it's impossible to keep anything in view or focus. Those with motion sickness problems may feel the urge to void their stomachs on the theater floor. And the hand-held shakiness doesn't stop when the chases and shootings end. Even simple dialogue scenes wobble as if the cameraman has the shakes. Waugh's intention with this approach is, as is often cited by directors employing this form of instability, to make things more immediate and gritty. The reality, however, is that it renders Snitch damn near impossible to watch at times.

Those who can get past the cinematography will discover in Snitch a fairly familiar story about a father who goes up against drug dealers to save his son. We haven't seen that one before, have we? If the movie can be said to offer anything new, it's the experience of watching Susan Sarandon being outacted by Dwayne Johnson (a.k.a. The Rock). The scenes featuring these two have an odd, almost unsettling vibe. It's not just that Sarandon isn't invested in her character but that Johnson is actually doing more than flexing his muscles and looking threatening. His performance isn't nuanced but it's effective - at least insofar as it's possible to tell with all the shaking going on.

John Matthews (Johnson) is the owner of a warehouse and transportation business. When his clueless 18-year old son, Jason (Rafi Gavron), is arrested for possession of a large quantity of ecstasy, he runs afoul of mandatory drug sentencing guidelines. The only way for him to reduce a 10-year jail term is by snitching on someone else. The problem is that the only drug dealer Jason knows is his best friend - the guy who set him up in the first place. (With friends like those...) Along comes John to offer the prosecutor, Joanne Keeghan (Sarandon), an offer she can't refuse: in return for reducing his son's sentence to one year, he'll bring down the biggest local drug dealer, a nasty piece of work named Malik (Michael K. Williams). After making the deal, the DEA agent in charge of the sting operation, Cooper (Barry Pepper), warns John that Joanne has a checkered reputation when it comes to things like this. He soon learns the danger of trusting her. When she discovers he might be able to nab a bigger fish than Malik - a cartel leader by the name of "El Topo" (Benjamin Bratt) - she unilaterally changes the deal. She offers John his son's freedom but at a price that could cost him his life.

The Rock typically plays Schwarzegger-type roles in which he spends the majority of his screen time scowling and kicking ass. Snitch offers him an opportunity to do things a little differently. This time around, his ass is the one that gets kicked and there's no instance in which he engages in a truly heroic beatdown. His action scenes mostly involve him behind the wheel of a big rig attempting to avoid gun-happy drug dealers shooting at him from passing cars. The crashes are the only thing in Snitch that are stylishly filmed and presented and the tractor trailer jackknife is impressive. The Rock is playing a role that might be better suited to a Mark Wahlberg type than a Schwarzenegger wannabe. Of course, considering the box office performance of The Governator's comeback, imitating Schwarzenegger might not be the best career move at the moment. Still, it's hard to imagine Snitch bringing in a lot more money than The Last Stand.

Snitch is long on canned dialogue and predictable narrative and short on action and adrenaline. The relationship between John and his son feels forced and artificial but is not nearly as hard to swallow as the one he shares with ex-con and new employee, Daniel (Jon Bernthal). The villains are weak as well. Malik is a rabid dog waiting to be put down and the oily El Topo has only a handful of scenes. The story offers plot holes big enough to drive John's 18-wheeler through but the shaking of the camera easily distracts the viewer from them.

It's nice to acknowledge that The Rock can act - he's got some thespian talent to go along with the brawn and one-liners. The problem is, Snitch isn't the best option to showcase what he can do with more serious, less cartoonish material. Johnson's greatest enemy here isn't the bad guys or the amoral prosecutor; it's the director and cinematographer who have conspired to ensure that those who attend this movie can't focus on anything other than the nauseating inability of the camera to keep still.

Snitch (United States, 2013)

Run Time: 1:52
U.S. Release Date: 2013-02-22
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1