Any doubts over whom Snitch might appeal to most are dispelled by its rarest element. The film’s subtitles, used to translate the Mexican drug barons, are displayed in the same font as the credits of action series 24. The comparisons don’t stop there; stuntman Ric Waugh’s latest directorial romp follows the beleaguered masculine mould appropriated and perfected by Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer, a man committed to duty whilst protecting his endangered family, oftentimes operating under a disapproving authority figure.
In Snitch, the afflicted man in question is John Matthews, an average father figure and construction mogul played by Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, a man of substantially larger than average build more befitting of a site worker than its owner. His dual source of anguish and authority is the fork-tongued Joanne Keeghan (Susan Sarandon), a District Attorney who overzealously propels John into an undercover sting operation against drug bosses Malik (Michael K. Williams) and ‘El Topo’ (Benjamin Bratt) in exchange for the freedom of his son Jason (Rafi Gavron), who faces a tough jail sentence after being implicated in the film’s opening drug bust.
As sticky situations go, this one is ‘based on a true story’, and the film’s closing statistics inform us that non-violent drug offenders, such as Jason, currently receive longer jail sentences than those convicted of rape, manslaughter or child molestation. The state’s illogical War on Drugs, personified in the unfeeling professionalism of Sarandon’s completist Keeghan, can be seen to further escalate the danger visited upon John and his colleague/accomplice Daniel (John Bernthal), a stable family man with plenty to lose.
But the consequences of poor individual responsibility are likewise acknowledged and manifested in John’s dubious parenthood, with Jason’s arrest effectively traced back to his father’s neglect and swift progression to new home, wife and kids following the breakdown of his first marriage. In a baffling script howler, John’s negligence is highlighted when he somehow forgets his own son’s surname. “You know he changed it to mine,” says ex-wife Sylvie (Melina Kanakaredes). “Why are you asking?” Why, indeed. As Jason is busted, his situation is contrasted by a pleasant neighbourhood barbeque over at John’s place, the camera flinging itself into the smiling faces of all those in attendance as if to emphasise the unadulterated joy that abounds.
The camera continues to jitter and sway out of time with the lather of reverb that drowns each scene, as Waugh demonstrably trusts in an ironically formless aesthetic overload to deliver an emotional high-note perhaps not expected or demanded of his actors on their lonesome. Clad head to toe in an orange prison uniform, Jason is led into the courtroom, and John and Sylvie’s visible grief is accompanied by slow-motion movement, stirring tones and a rattling frame – restraint and assurance in the actors’ ability to portray parental anguish would perhaps have sufficed instead.
Dwayne Johnson’s role, in the hands of the right storyteller, could be demanding, multi-faceted. Torn between disparate families of past and present, and at the same time oscillating around the state and the lawless drug cartels. Johnson is required to portray a relatively confident man, suddenly and shamefully levelled to an unfamiliar weakness, and coerced into adopting a new, deceitful confidence. This iconic WWE wrestler and ‘movie franchise viagra’, synonymous with good humour and physical dominance, is a rare sight when exhausted, scarred both mentally and emotionally. A rarity is therefore an opportunity, but Waugh’s directorial myopia prohibits him from recognising and thusly seizing on the chance to hand Johnson a challenging turn.
There’s a good idea – and a good fight against the War on Drugs – buried under here, beneath the fill of a poor script and a typically plain digital action style. But the loudest crime is the harshest. In an early scene, father and son confide across from each other during prison visiting hours. Betraying the difficult nature of such an encounter, the emotional music steadily swelling throughout has it sound as if both are delivering a presidential speech. The title of Snitch is a telling admission – this is a film that doesn’t know when to stay quiet.