The action-thriller has traditionally been a really conservative genre. You know how it goes: there’s a muscled-up good guy who’s pushed to his limit, and eventually decides that some killing needs to be done (bank robbers, drug runners, the Vietnamese, it doesn’t really matter - it’s usually just some group that threatens his family). So Generic Hero tries to right the bad guys’ wrongs without resorting to violence, completely fails during the second act, and eventually just kills all the baddies in a cathartic ballet of blood. That outcome is normally posited as the best-case scenario.
So a lot of these movies actually start to move away from the ’conservative’ right and into the realm of ’pseudo-fascistic.’ But not "Snitch" - no, this potboiler swaps out heavy artillery for a bleeding heart. And the villain is no less the American government. This one’s all about the ’mandatory minimum sentencing’ laws. First instituted in New York State in the 70s, they make the ideas of leniency and context irrelevant in drug cases. Basically, if you’re caught possessing ’X’ amount of a hard drug (let’s say a couple of ounces,) you’re going to jail for 15 years to life. The situation that led to the arrest itself doesn’t matter.
You can say they were a manner in which to win an unwinnable war on drugs (by the way, we lost that war anyway), but the laws, in retrospect, seem more an excuse for a paranoid society to lock away minorities for decades on end, for nonviolent crimes, and then throw away the key. So it’s not shocking that, now that the mainstream is finally starting to ease up on drug policy, (individual states are beginning to legalize pot), we get a big action star like The Rock to stand up and battle against the system, as if it were the Russian Spy in a James Cameron movie.
And he’s a fitting choice for such an atypical actioner. Guys like Schwarzenegger and Stallone always look like their roided out biceps are about to explode out of their skin; and they make it seem like an AK-47 is a natural extension of their fists. Not Rocky. His talents as an action star come in his unassuming nature: he seems puzzled by guns, and we believe it when he sheepishly Googles ’drug dealer’ in search of information. His muscles hide behind collared shirts as if he doesn’t even know what to do with his girth.
So when the DEA nabs his son for accepting a package with "two boats" of ecstasy in it (in the films’ funniest moment, there’s a beeping DEA tablet in the package, the type you get when waiting at Applebee’s,) Johnson breaks down at the sight of his black-eyed boy in prison, and we believe it. When he naively begs the arresting officer (Barry Pepper) and an overzealous city official (Susan Sarandon) to let him snitch on drug dealers to commute his son’s sentence, we believe it.
When he walks into a Blood drug den run by murderous kingpin Malik (Michael K. Williams,) asking for drugs as if he were buying a pack of Gatorade from CVS, we believe it. And when he’s locked up in a car chase, scratching and clawing away for his life against a Mexican cartel, we believe it. He’s not a hero, he’s a regular guy (who just happens to outweigh other regular guys by 150 pounds.) All that’s very rare for a C-grade action movie. And, progressive politics or not, this is definitively a C-grade action movie.
Unfortunately, Waugh doesn’t seem to trust his stars’ formidable acting chops. He overlays every scene with a string-based, tear-jerking score that immediately throws every emotion into the realm of kitsch. As hard as Johnson tries, it’s impossible to connect when the direction is pitched at the tone of a Lifetime movie. And with the action sequences so unfulfilling - a car chase here, a foot chase there, all shot with a disorienting shaky cam - the only thing left to appreciate is Barry Pepper’s magnificent goatee.
A telling piece of on-screen text closes the film, sending you out of the theatre with facts about the rate of drug arrests vs. the rate of violent arrests in America. It shows the films’ hand. This is firstly a primer on America’s drug policy and its apparent corruption; secondly, it’s an action film. I’m left wishing we had less of Ric Waugh’s heavy hands and more of the Rock’s.