There's no denying that Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson has come a long way from his days as a pro wrestler for the WWE. Since making the transition to film acting over ten years ago, he's appeared in dozens of movies and has always maintained an immensely likeable screen presence. He's got good looks, charisma to spare, and a personality that seems tailor-made for the action-comedy genre. But despite his efforts, his film career has never really caught fire, even with the success of 2011's "Fast Five." His latest film, "Snitch" is something of a departure for him: Despite its action-heavy advertising, the film is actually more a social justice drama than anything else, and one that allows Johnson to flex some acting muscle in a way he's never quite been asked to before.
Johnson plays John Matthews, owner of a small, successful construction company. Divorced, John can afford to live in a gorgeous McMansion with his second wife and their young daughter, while his estranged ex-wife and teenage son, Jason (Rafi Gavron) have to live a bit more scrupulously and struggle to make due on their own. When Jason is arrested for possession of a significant amount of ecstasy tablets and charged with drug trafficking, John feels an immediate sense of guilt for not being more of a father to his son. He's informed by his son's lawyer that, because of the country's harsh drug laws, Jason faces a sentence of ten years in prison. John, knowing his son won't survive a prison sentence, is desperate to find a way to help his son in any way he can. Jason refuses to accept a deal to reduce his sentence, which would involve him setting up his friends to help prosecutors make more arrests, so his father uses his connections to get a meeting with high-powered, conservative district attorney, Joanne Keeghan (Susan Sarandon, in a typically solid, if somewhat one-dimensional performance) to make a new deal. John will infiltrate a drug ring himself, using his company's trucks to transport for them, and then deliver the dealers over to the police.
Searching through his employee records for any ex-convicts who might be able to provide him with the right connections, John settles on Daniel James (Jon Bernthal of TV's "The Walking Dead"), a new hire with a record that includes arrests for drug distribution. Daniel now has a family, and has left his past behind him, but when John offers him twenty thousand dollars just to make the necessary introductions, he finds it hard to say no. The film is surprisingly frank about the not entirely heroic things John is willing to do to save his son; it's made clear that Daniel is a good man doing his best to turn his life around, and the way that John manipulates him into walking straight back into the world he's trying to get away from isn't shied away from.
Though it's hampered somewhat by a less than plausible premise (John is able to earn the trust of the local dealers awfully quickly) and a tendency toward self-importance, "Snitch" works remarkably well. The script, credited to Justin Haythe ("Revolutionary Road") and the film's director, Ric Roman Waugh, is heavy-handed with its message, that the "mandatory minimum" drug laws aren't working and only result in the arrest of naive kids and first-time offenders. But it's admirable that the film has something on its mind aside from gunfights and explosions, which is more than I expected walking into the theater. The middle section of the film, in which John and Daniel go about making themselves indispensable to local drug traffickers is the film's strongest, even if it all happens a bit too easily ("Breaking Bad," this ain't). It's almost a shame that the story devolves into a by-the-numbers action film by its end, with shootouts and car chases taking the place of a real dramatic resolution. Sure, they're competently executed and exciting to watch, but it betrays everything that came before. The script makes a point to show early on that John Matthews isn't a tough guy hero, but then proceeds to turn him into exactly that. We know that Johnson can make with the action, but with this film he proves he's got some dramatic chops as well. And if this role isn't enough for him to transition into a true movie star, well, there's always "Fast and Furious 6".