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Solid ‘Snitch' has social conscience, big names

Feb. 22, 2013 - 07:47AM   |   Last Updated: Feb. 22, 2013 - 07:47AM  |  
Trailer: 'Snitch'
Trailer: 'Snitch': A father (Dwayne Johnson) goes undercover for the DEA in a powerful and vicious Mexican cartel in the hopes that it will free his son, who was set up in a drug bust.
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Dwayne Johnson and Melina Kanakaredes star in the film "Snitch." (Steve Diet / Summit Entertainment via AP)

‘Snitch’

Rated R for violence, drugs, bad language.

"Snitch" is quite possibly the best movie Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson has ever made.

Maybe that's something of a backhanded compliment. Doesn't make it any less true.

The pro wrestler acquits himself very well in a film that surrounds him with a deep cast of veteran co-stars to spin a story "inspired by" true tales of the absurd mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses our judicial system now employs.

A movie with a social conscience? That must be why Susan Sarandon is here as U.S. Attorney Joanne Keeghan, who is in a tight race for Congress and eager to show the voters how tough she is on drugs.

She's the one who sends John Matthews (Johnson) down the rabbit hole when his son Jason (Rafi Gavron), who has never been in trouble with the law before, gets stung by the feds for foolishly accepting a massive quantity of Ecstasy through the mail to hold for a dealer buddy.

The quantity is enough to get Jason slapped with 10 years, minimum — no wiggle room, no appeals, no nothing.

The only way to reduce his sentence is for him to rat out other dealers. Unfortunately, the only one he knows is the doofus who sent him the Ecstasy — and he's already been pinched, too.

So Matthews gets Keeghan to agree to let him wade into the shadowy world of street dealers and their cartel overlords to help the feds make an airtight bust on some other big player in return for cutting his son's sentence.

Just one problem: Matthews is an ordinary suburban husband and father who runs an ordinary construction supply business. He knows nothing about how to even begin to get on the inside.

Ah, but he has an employee who does: Daniel James (Jon Bernthal, back among the living after meeting his ghoulish end as Shane on "The Walking Dead").

James, a two-time loser for distribution desperately trying to stay straight for his wife and son, reluctantly agrees to make an introduction to the local top dog, Malik (the great Michael K. Williams, aka Chalkie White on HBO's "Boardwalk Empire").

From there, Keeghan and her local DEA boys, led by Agent Cooper (Barry Pepper of "61•," "Saving Private Ryan" and "True Grit," among many others), push Matthews in deeper over his head, moving the goalposts whenever it suits them.

The risk shoots sky-high when the trail leads to "El Topo" (Benjamin Bratt, who spent 15 years on "Law & Order"), a cartel alpha male and a true top dog.

It's an engrossing story with a strong sense of social justice. As the script notes, mandatory minimum drug sentences put hordes of nonviolent offenders in jail with sentences that often run years longer than those handed down to your typical rapist, child molester or bank robber — and deliver fat profits to the private corporations that increasingly run our prisons with a vested interest in keeping the cells full.

But the film has a small flaw that dogs it the whole way: our expectations of Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson.

Again, he's a decent actor, but he's still built like a brick wall and is as imposing a physical presence as ever. So when he bumbles into the 'hood and gets beaten senseless by some local thugs, it just doesn't quite square with "The Rock" in our minds.

You keep waiting for him to bust out the hurt stick and put a major whuppin' on someone. He does, after a fashion, but he's far more restrained here than the human bludgeon of such films as "Walking Tall" and "Faster."

But "Snitch" is an intriguingly different kind of film for Johnson, now in his 40s.

Showing the Hollywood honchos and the moviegoing public that as an actor, he can be as solid as a rock (as opposed to "The Rock") — without ever removing his shirt — in a serious film with something to say … well, that might be one canny, well-timed career move.

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