Nobody is going to confuse a Dwayne Johnson movie with “Les Misérables.” But “Snitch” gets a decent amount of drama (and action, of course) out of the argument that there’s paying for a crime, and then there’s overpaying.
Johnson plays John Matthews, a construction company owner whose comfortable life gets shaken up, fast, when his teenage son (Rafi Gavron) gets caught with a buddy’s ecstasy shipment in a drug sting. Action-figure physique notwithstanding, John has his flaws, and he’s believably aggravated by the episode, blaming his ex (Melina Kanakaredes), and telling the authorities: Good, keep the kid locked up overnight and scare him straight. What Dad doesn’t realize is that his son is a “mandatory minimum” case, part of a sentencing system that has him facing 10 years of prison time unless he can help the feds make further arrests. (The movie, which drew on a 1999 “Frontline” segment for inspiration, is vague about its “inspired by true events” ad line — probably wisely, when we get to the shoot-outs and “Road Warrior” stuff. Still, the end credits plug a website that links to all manner of mandatory-minimum protest resources, activist petitions, etc.)
Compounding the problem: The kid really isn’t a dealer, and doesn’t know any to snitch on. So John totes his get-things-done outlook to the office of the federal prosecutor (Susan Sarandon), and cooks up a desperate plan to deliver mitigating arrests himself. He leans on a conflicted, ex-con employee (Jon Bernthal, “The Walking Dead”) to make introductions, and uses company trucks to bait drug dealers in need of transportation services. Michael K. Williams (“Boardwalk Empire”) is all snakelike street menace as the local scene’s big player, and Benjamin Bratt vamps as a cartel jefe a few links farther up the food chain. The more they get their hooks into John, the more the government does as well, with Sarandon effectively working a thin perma-smile to put a face on maddening bureaucracy.
Is the whole situation a reach? No more than, say, a high school chemistry teacher turning meth kingpin. (Although, again, you probably shouldn’t scrutinize the “true story” assertion too closely.) The storytelling is slick — we sort of need DEA agent Barry Pepper’s random, mangy biker beard to offset all the upscale gloss — but as thrillers go, this one is pretty lean. By the time stuntman-turned-director Ric Roman Waugh indulges in some climactic big rig mayhem, you’ll give him a pass for good behavior.
And despite the setup, Johnson isn’t playing superhero. There’s a shrewd, understated theme that he’s a guy who’s nowhere near as macho cool as he looks. Johnson might be physically incapable of dropping those WWE-developed shoulders to register defeat, but he spends a lot of time flinching here. Vetting him as a civilian and not law enforcement, Williams’s heavy scoffs, “You’d be the biggest [wuss] pig I ever seen.” The Rock even cries! And while you won’t be moved to mistiness along with him, his determination should leave you feeling the intended satisfaction.