Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Cinema File #127: "Snitch" Review

I walked into Snitch knowing very little about the movie other than a brief synopsis, a general idea from the poster, and the fact that Dwayne Johnson was in it. I've always liked Johnson, especially in action movies, so I decided to give it a chance. While I went in expecting something like Walking Tall, basically The Rock being a badass and punching drug dealers in the face, I came out having watched a slow paced drama about the perverted politics and unfortunate consequences of the drug war. I'm still not sure whether the overall sense of disappointment I feel is due to the film not being very good, or just due to it not living up to my erroneous expectations, but either way, I'm kind of ambivalent when it comes to my final analysis.

Snitch follows Johnson as the father of a teenager falsely accused of being a drug dealer, who begins working for a corrupt district attorney as an undercover operative inside a drug cartel to get his kid a reduced sentence.  If only for the potential bad press it would cause if something went wrong, the premise that a DA would basically blackmail a father into putting himself in harm's way in exchange for his son's freedom is just one or two ticks away from credible. It is precisely because of this leap in logic that I assumed this movie would be less morally complicated. There's a point towards the beginning of the film where a desperate Johnson literally looks up Drug Cartels on Wikipedia to try to help the situation, and it was then that I thought I knew what kind of movie I was watching, but almost right after this moment, when instead of kicking ass he gets his ass thoroughly kicked, it very quickly became something completely different.

Snitch isn't an action film at all, and only nominally a crime movie. It is at its heart a gritty look at our nation's insane, Kafkaesque drug laws and the innocent people often caught in the crossfire. Part of me wants to applaud the film for dealing with a side of this social problem rarely depicted in mainstream Hollywood movies, clearly siding with the victims of law enforcement rather than cheering on super cops against evil drug lords. And yet, I can't exactly say it is done particularly well, and I can't help but think that, just as an entertaining movie experience, the cheesy action flick I had in my head would have made for a much better time. I know that's ridiculously unfair, but for all its surprising depth and complexity on an issue I do genuinely care about, the final product is just far too boring for me to invest in it enough to be outraged where I should be.

I've never enjoyed a lead actor's performance more in a movie while at the same time thinking they were completely miscast. Dwayne Johnson is good as the beleaguered father doing whatever he can to keep his family safe, but precisely because this isn't the kind of movie I thought it was going to be, I can't buy him as the average joe he's playing. This is a character that needs to scream Everyman, and for better or worse, Johnson is not that, physically or otherwise, and as a result his talents are wasted here. Like I said, I really like the guy, and he does a good job with the material, but it never gives him the opportunity to play to his strengths either as an action star or just as a charismatic leading man, and it doesn't give him enough dramatic pathos to justify sacrificing those strengths. He's left to basically slog through the movie with a glower look on his face while everyone else upstages him.

The supporting cast is top notch, but I keep going back to the wasted talent thing. With the exception of Susan Sarandon who has many opportunities to relish her villainous politician character, we get a lot of actors that we know are capable of turning in powerful performances given mostly nothing to do. Jon Bernthal comes the closest to breaking through this ceiling as an ex-con roped back into a life of crime, but I honestly don't know why they bothered putting Michael Kenneth Williams, Berry Pepper, Nadine Velazquez, or Benjamin Bratt in this movie if they weren't going to have them rise above one note cliches. Even if they were overacting in the over the top popcorn movie I wanted, at least they'd look like they were enjoying themselves. I'd prefer actors chewing the scenery to actors without teeth.

I want to like this movie a lot more than I do. Its not that there isn't a lot to like about Snitch, its just that what's there is masked by lackluster execution that isn't as uncompromising as it needs to be to sell the gritty tone, and not explosive enough to hold my interest in the absence of effective drama. It walks this weird boring middle ground between a Schwarzenegger or Van Damme movie and something like Traffic, never settling on one side or the other long enough for me to get excited. If you're as big a fan of The Rock as I am, you might have just enough reason to go out and see it, but otherwise, there's very little reason to bother.
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