If the trailers for Snitch could be trusted, we're to gather that Dwayne Johnson single-handedly takes on one of Mexico's most powerful drug cartels in a desperate bid to get his son out of prison. It's the perfect setup for a typical action film in which gun clips somehow hold infinite ammo and bad guys are dispatched by the dozen as our bloodied, battered hero steadily works his way through the ranks until barely surviving the final showdown (see: Arnold Schwarzenegger's The Last Stand). Even a casual glance at director Ric Roman Waugh's extensive credits as a stuntman (he's worked for such greats as Tony Scott, John McTiernan, James Cameron, and Steven Spielberg, to name a few) may only serve to hasten our dismissal of Snitch as another by-the-numbers popcorn flick for overgrown adolescents.
What neither of these observations do, in any way, is prepare you for the blindsiding to come.
A desperate father infiltrates a powerful drug cartel in order to save his son from a prison sentence in this crime drama based on actual events. Arrested on charges of drug distribution after he's caught with a package of Ecstasy, 18-year-old Jason Collins (Rafi Gavron) faces a mandatory ten-year sentence in a federal prison. But Jason's father John (Johnson) knows that his son is no drug dealer, and vows to do whatever it takes to win back his freedom. When Jason refuses an offer to reduce his sentence by setting someone else up to take a big fall, John pleads with U.S. Attorney Joanne Keeghan (Susan Sarandon) to let him go undercover and gather enough evidence to convict the real power players. With the help of ex-con-turned-family man Daniel (Jon Bernthal), John is hot on the trail of Malik (Michael Kenneth Williams), a vicious drug dealer and the leader of a notorious street gang. But in his efforts to free his son, John finds that he may have inadvertently put Daniel's family in jeopardy. Later, when the growing trail of clues leads John to ruthless cartel leader Juan Carlos "El Topo" Pintera (Benjamin Bratt), the loyal father vows not to let his fate be dictated by the ambitious powers that be on either side of the law.
Call it a bait and switch or just good-old-fashioned incompetent advertising, but precious few who head out to the multiplex to see Snitch are likely to have any indication of what's in store for them when the lights go down. While those expecting a nonstop shoot-'em-up are bound to walk away disappointed, others who can recognize the film for what it truly is -- a thinly veiled condemnation of the failed War on Drugs -- might see this competent crime drama as a breath of fresh air. Together with Revolutionary Road scribe Justin Haythe, director/co-screenwriter Waugh paints a troubling portrait of failed government policies and the devastating collateral damage that occurs when opportunistic politicians cling to them as a means of advancing their careers. Although subtlety is hardly the point here (as evidenced primarily in Sarandon's shark-smile performance), Haythe and Waugh do manage to raise some thought-provoking questions about the system's flaws as John and Daniel weigh the consequences of their actions. All the while, the dynamic between the two men holds us captivated not only because both are fathers determined to do right by their sons, but also due to the former's naiveté regarding the world that the latter is waging a losing battle to escape.
Given the intimate scale that Snitch operates on, the movie may seem insignificant when compared to the brand of sprawling crime dramas in which the fate of a major city, or even an entire country, hinges on the outcome of some dangerous investigation involving all manner of covert government organizations. Step back and consider how many families have been -- and are still being -- torn apart by antiquated policies that have been proven time and again to have a detrimental effect on society, however, and the true scope of the tragedy becomes almost too overwhelming to bear. Kudos to Haythe and Waugh for not only breaking the mold, but actually delivering a film of true substance about a topic that affects countless more than just the convicted. It may not mean much in terms of action, but what Snitch lacks in explosions, it more than makes up for by delivering a message that needs to be heard.