Silver Screen: Snitch ***

Silver Screen: Snitch  ***
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Who:
What:
Where:
When:
Snitch, the surprisingly earnest action vehicle for star Dwayne “Seriously, You Can Stop Calling Me
Bryan Miller

Snitch, the surprisingly earnest action vehicle for star Dwayne “Seriously, You Can Stop Calling Me the Rock Now” Johnson, is certainly conventional but also a little strange. It’s a blatantly conservative movie that panders hard to its target demographic of middle-aged men who still go see action flicks that lack superheroes and dragons, but in the final moment it reveals itself to be a sermon against the injustices of the nation’s cockeyed drug laws.

You’d be forgiven for not recognizing Snitch as an impassioned plea for legal reform until the end, when a few lines of text flash across the screen alerting viewers that mandatory-minimum sentences for drug offenders are often harsher than punishments for rape, kidnapping, and manslaughter. Up until that point in the film, mandatory-minimum sentences seemed mostly like a plot device, when Jason (Rafi Gavron), the estranged son of small-business owner John Matthews (Johnson), is threatened with ten years of jail time for holding a package for a friend that turns out to contain a couple hundred hits of ecstasy. Jason’s buddy was himself busted and set his mostly innocent pal up in an effort to reduce his own sentence. Jason refuses a craven defense attorney’s request to set up another unsuspecting friend to squirm out of his own jail time, which means the clueless, defenseless kid is going to spend a decade behind bars.

John has another idea. He volunteers to team up with an ambitious prosecutor (Susan Sarandon) to help set up and catch a high-level drug trafficker. If Jason can’t or won’t help the feds catch another crook to get his own plea deal, his dad will do it for him.

John is basically a conservative’s centerfold-fantasy of a small-business owner. He started as a truck driver and eventually became the owner of his own shipping and construction company, then relocated to a Pottery Barn-decorated house on a suburban cul-de-sac where he lives with his second wife and their young daughter. None of this seems to have cut into his workout time. He’s a self-made man quick to accept even the direst responsibility yet compassionate enough to hire ex-cons and pay them a decent wage. The brassy lawyer he teams up with at one point openly scoffs at the idea of going to a gay wedding. His name is John Matthews-- two Biblical names in one. He’s an Ayn Rand reference away from being nominated to run for a Missouri Senate seat.

That said, Snitch is a bit more serious than its pulpy premise might lead you to believe. John enlists the help of ex-con Daniel (The Walking Dead’s Jon Bernthal) to make a connection with a drug dealer he might entrap. Daniel is a former gang enforcer who’s truly trying to stay on the straight and narrow, but his wife and young son are still living in the ghetto and suffering the consequences of his earlier mistakes. Like John, he only wants what’s best for his boy, and he’s trapped by both economic circumstance and his boss’s demands.

It’s a tricky moral dilemma for John: He’s essentially entrapping Daniel right along with the rest of the drug dealers, and potentially causing Daniel’s family to be torn apart in the same way his own has been unjustly separated. Writer/director Ric Roman Waugh, a longtime former stunt coordinator, doesn’t excuse John’s desperate behavior and paints Daniel as the more sympathetic figure.

Alas, Waugh is first a stunt coordinator, and this is an action movie, so the moral dilemma takes a backseat when it comes time for the shootouts and car crashes. The film never suffers from an overabundance of verisimilitude (for starters, the hilariously generic drug runners played by Benjamin Bratt and The Wire’s Michael K. Williams), but it eschews plausibility altogether in the modestly exciting finale, which finds John, a civilian with no authority or legal sanction, blasting thugs with a shotgun and endangering the lives of hundreds of innocents as he caroms around the interstate in his big rig, causing countless accidents. The only thing more unbelievable is supporting player Barry Pepper’s long, obviously glued-on beard.

Mixed-up as it is, Snitch is a little more ambitious than a standard shoot-’em-up, and Johnson is more charismatic than most modern-day action heroes. It plays like a sincere effort rather than a callous cash-in, and it’s not an effort to sit through-- close enough to call it a victory in the dregs of winter.

Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.