MOVIES

From Action to Acting

Dwayne Johnson pushes performance, but drug story lacks punch

John Matthews (Dwayne Johnson, center) takes on a drug kingpin's operation to help the DEA and save his son from prison in “Snitch,” directed by Ric Roman Waugh
Photo: Summit Entertainment
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Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Susan Sarandon, Jon Bernthal, Barry Pepper, Benjamin Bratt

Directed by: Ric Roman Waugh

Stars: 2 1/2 out of 4

Rating: PG-13

World Wrestling Entertainment: Johnson makes his name as The Rock starting in the mid-1990s. He chose semi-retirement from wrestling to devote more time to an acting career. He returned to the WWE in 2011, wrestling the main event at WrestleMania XXVIII in 2012.

“The Scorpion King” (2002): A bit part in the “The Mummy Returns” in 2001 led to his first starring role a year later. Johnson showed he could carry an action film, but didn’t demonstrate much range.

“The Gridiron Gang” (2006): Johnson moves from action to drama, though he's on familiar turf, given his college football background, in this true story of a counselor coaching a football team of juvenile delinquents.

“The Game Plan” (2007): Johnson shows an unexpected flair for light comedy in the tale of a bachelor quarterback suddenly becoming a dad to an 8-year-old girl. He followed this up with other light comedies, including “The Tooth Fairy” in 2009.

Watching the trailers, you might think “Snitch” is Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s latest action film, but there isn’t enough action in this movie to raise your heartbeat much above that of a brisk walk.

However, “Snitch” does allow Johnson to bust out of his action-hero mold with a more dramatic turn.

The owner of a successful construction business who’s happily married to his second wife, John Matthews (Johnson) has only one regret — estrangement from Jason, the son from his first marriage.

John’s world is torn apart when his son agrees to accept delivery of a package of ecstasy from a drug-dealing friend in exchange for some free pills. The DEA catches the dealer mailing the package, and he quickly agrees to set up Jason in exchange for a lesser sentence.

John learns that his son’s single indiscretion means he faces a mandatory 10-year federal prison sentence unless he, in turn, sets up some unsuspecting friends. But Jason doesn’t know anyone else in the drug trade and refuses to trap innocent friends to take his place in prison.

Confronted by federal prosecutor Joanne Keeghan (Susan Sarandon), who hides behind mandatory minimum laws and refuses to help Jason — even though she knows the kid is clearly less culpable than the drug-dealing “friend” — John concocts a plan to work his way into the drug world and trade a dealer for his son. Joanne discourages John at first, but ultimately offers him a deal if he can deliver. Sarandon’s considerable talents are largely wasted in this one-note role. Similarly, Melina Kanakaredes, as Jason’s mother Sylvie, does little besides act worried.

All of this drags out painstakingly slowly in the film's first half; this inevitable chain of events is clear from the moment the movie starts.

Things pick up speed when John identifies an employee with a drug past, Daniel (Jon Bernthal), who can introduce him to a major drug dealer. John can offer the dealer the use of his tractor-trailers to smuggle drugs.

But John becomes a victim of his own success when DEA Agent Cooper (Barry Pepper) sees an opportunity to bust drug lord “El Topo” (Benjamin Bratt). Like Sarandon, Bratt doesn’t have much to work with as he plays a stereotypical drug kingpin.

“Snitch” is inspired by true events, but it's not based on real people. The inspiration was a “Frontline” documentary about changes in federal drug laws creating a system in which those caught with drugs have to rat out accomplices to get shorter sentences, so the first ones busted get the deals, not those who are least involved.

The movie is competently directed by Ric Roman Waugh, and the second half is paced much better than the first, but the story of a family member rescuing a foolish youth from prison is hardly new and has certainly been told better in movies like the compelling “Return to Paradise.”

There aren’t many surprises here other than, perhaps, Johnson stepping up his acting game in a more challenging role. Maybe he can find something a little more entertaining for his next dramatic effort.

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