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This article was published February 22, 2013 at 2:22 a.m.


John Matthews (Dwayne Johnson) is an honest man who gets involved with the drug trade to free his son from prison in the dramatic thriller Snitch.

— Snitch plays like two movies grafted into one. The first is a gritty, topical crime drama that makes no attempt to hide its agenda. The other is a pretty good excuse for gun play, vehicle chases and that old staple, explosions.

Because leading man Dwayne Johnson is broad shouldered enough to look authoritative behind a shotgun and has the range to play something more than a garden variety tough guy, Snitch manages to hold together. Co-writer-director Ric Roman Waugh is one of the few filmmakers who has asked the wrestler to show off his acting chops. Thankfully, “The Rock” has been saving some moves he hasn’t brought to the camera before.

This time around he plays John Matthews, the owner of a construction firm and the father of a troubled son named Jason (Rafi Gavron).

Actually, Jason has turned out rather well considering John’s messy breakup with his ex (Melina Kanakaredes). But unfortunately, he makes the mistake of receiving an overnight courier shipment of ecstasy from a friend.

While Jason has no priors or drug problems (other than smoking some homegrown weed), federal mandatory sentencing laws dictate that the 18-year-old can either help the cops bust others, who like him have only limited involvement with the trade, or spend decades in prison.

Despite lacking his dad’s brawn (which makes him dead meat in prison), Jason can’t bring himself to dupe his peers the way his alleged friend duped him. Feeling guilty for not having been closer to the lad, John approaches a prosecutor (Susan Sarandon) with an unusual and rather dangerous proposal.

Because many of John’s employees have just been released from the slammer, he argues than many of them are closer to the kingpins who run the cartels. Therefore, if he pretends to be interested in hauling drugs in his tractor-trailers, he can help the cops nab the dealers in exchange for Jason’s release.

The district attorney is initially skeptical, but his seemingly suicidal idea makes sense. After all, the drug lords are delighted at the prospect of a mule who won’t attract suspicion. Besides, what Drug Enforcement Administration agent has time to search a semitrailer full of concrete sacks for a few concealed bags of cocaine?

There wouldn’t be a movie if things didn’t get more complicated from here, and it’s probably doubtful that without a few scenes of highway shootouts, no studio would have given the green light.

Waugh comes at the film from a unique angle: He’s a former undercover cop and stuntman. Snitch juggles the drama and action with mixed results. In some ways the didactic tone is actually a blessing. Waugh’s disgust at draconian minimum drug sentences that are harsher than those for a convicted murderer or rapist is more than justified. If the film’s take had been nuanced, the point might have been lost in all the car crashes.

Johnson keeps things from falling apart because, unlike some boulder-bicepped big guys, he’s willing to act sensitive. He may be one of the few fellows who look heartbroken without losing their sense of macho. Also, he’s actually got the guts to play a scene where John gets beat up. At least Waugh is smart enough not to shortchange how dangerous narcotic traffickers can be. Biceps are useless against automatic weapons.

Despite his imposing physique, Johnson doesn’t have to carry the film alone. Jon Bernthal (The Walking Dead) is sympathetic as an ex-con who reluctantly helps John, not knowing that John might turn him in, too, and Barry Pepper is suitably scruffy as a veteran cop who has a more realistic perspective on the drug trade than the politically ambitious prosecutor does.

It is easy to fault Snitch for trying to be two seemingly incompatible films at once. I, for one, am deeply grateful that Waugh does a passable job of juggling when too many filmmakers have trouble keeping one ball in the air.

Snitch 77 Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Susan Sarandon, Jon Bernthal, Rafi Gavron, Melina Kanakaredes, Nadine Velazquez, Benjamin Bratt, Michael K. Williams Director: Ric Roman Waugh Rating: PG-13, for drug content and sequences of violence Running time: 112 minutes

MovieStyle, Pages 31 on 02/22/2013

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