Hollywood has been trying to elevate Dwayne Johnson (better known by his WWE name “The Rock”) to big-ticket action star for some time. The guy is instantly likable, something wrestling fans have known forever, and I enjoyed 2003’s The Rundown, which found the right mix of action and comedy to suit Johnson’s talents. But since then, his filmography is mostly a mix of failed action films (Doom, Walking Tall) and kiddie fare that has done very well at the box office (Race to Witch Mountain, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island). It’d be fair to say I’d tuned out.
Johnson’s career got a major boost from 2011’s surprise hit Fast Five,, which I guess convinced some Hollywood muckety-mucks that it was time to cast him in another dramatic role. Which brings me to Snitch, a preposterous, solemn, ponderous action movie directed by a former stuntman who likes his scenes with extra shaky cam. Lacking in wit or humor, and featuring a dud performance from its star, Snitch falls flat.
The movie does begin strongly, however. A kid (Rafi Gavron) is Skypeing with a friend who makes him an offer he can’t refuse: Take delivery of a box of Ecstasy that’s coming UPS, enjoy a few free samples while waiting for the buddy to collect his goods. The kid never really commits, but the package shows up anyway and he signs for it. Bad idea. As soon as the box is open, the DEA is breaking down the door.
Johnson plays John Matthews, the kid’s estranged father. Matthews has moved on, and he’s now running a trucking company while living the suburban life with a new spouse (Nadine Velazquez) and young daughter. But then his ex-wife (Melina Kanakaredes) calls to report that his son is in jail. Turns out the kid is super fucked because of mandatory minimum sentencing, leaving Matthews in search of a way to get his son out of jail. A visit with the federal prosecutor (Susan Sarandon) on the case yields an answer: If daddy helps the DEA nab a dealer, they’ll cut his son’s sentence.
This is, of course, absurd. But it’s only a movie, right? Suspend disbelief! Moving on …
Matthews pours over his office personnel files looking for an employee that can get him an entre into the world of drug dealers, and finds his man in Daniel James (Jon Bernthal), a felon sent up for distribution who can arrange a meet with a low-level dealer (Michael Kenneth Williams). All goes well until a DEA agent (Barry Pepper, sporting the most ridiculous movie beard in a while) pulls the plug on the bust when it becomes obvious that Matthews can get them close to a cartel kingpin (Benjamin Bratt — no, really). The movie climaxes in an underwhelming interstate car chase that will have Fast Five fans yawning.
Johnson is required to play all kinds of dramatic scenes throughout this film, and he fails almost every time. Stalking the frame like he’s carrying an invisible box under each arm, Johnson is far better suited to lighter fair. The guy has charm and charisma. I want to have some fun with him! Watching Johnson hold back tears is agonizing in all the wrong ways. It turns out the “The Rock” isn’t just a nickname, it’s an acting style.
To make matters worse, Johnson is surrounded by other actors who do very well with their parts — in particular, The Walking Dead’s Jon Bernthal, who makes a strong impression as Johnson’s tortured underling, bringing believability to a role (former bad guy just trying to fly right for his family) that’s beyond a cliché. I also liked Pepper as the world-weary DEA agent and Michael Kenneth Williams as an intense dealer living in squalor. Even Susan Sarandon has some fun as an overly political animal with questionable ethics.
Johnson has a full slate of movies scheduled for release this year, including a sequel to Fast Five and the Michael Bay-directed Pain & Gain, co-starring Mark Wahlberg. I hope the filmmakers find a way to play to Johnson’s considerable strengths. Why so serious, big guy? Lighten up!