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(2013) (Dwayne Johnson, Jon Bernthal) (PG-13)

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Drama/Action: A father goes to extreme measures to try to have his estranged teenage son's serious drug sentence lessened.
John Matthews (DWAYNE JOHNSON) is a hard-working man who runs a trucking business and is married to Analisa (NADINE VELAZQUEZ) with whom he has a young daughter. He also has a teenage son, Jason (RAFI GAVRON), from a previous marriage to Sylvie (MELINA KANAKAREDES), and they need his help now. Having reluctantly agreed to accept and hold a large shipment of ecstasy pills for a friend, Jason has now been busted for possession with the intent to distribute, a federal charge that could land him in prison for at least ten years.

John visits and pleads with U.S. Attorney Joanne Keeghan (SUSAN SARANDON) for some leniency, but since she's working with undercover DEA agent Cooper (BARRY PEPPER) to crack down on the drug trade, she isn't willing to do anything unless Jason snitches on others. Since the high school senior has no one to give up in exchange for a lessened sentence, John proposes that he go undercover, infiltrate the drug trade and deliver to Joanne the people she desires.

She reluctantly agrees, and with John knowing he has some ex-cons working for him, he searches for one who might be able to introduce him into such criminal activity. That man is Daniel James (JON BERNTHAL), twice convicted of drug trafficking but now trying to turn his life around with his wife, Vanessa (LELA LOREN), and their young son. Knowing a third strike will land him back in prison, Daniel is reluctant, but the large amount of cash that John dangles in front of him changes his mind.

Daniel then introduces him to his former drug acquaintance, local dealer Malik (MICHAEL K. WILLIAMS) who's similarly trying to lay low as a third strike will also send him to prison. Pretending his business is floundering and needs another source of income, John convinces Malik to allow him to transport drugs in his new rigs in exchange for a cut of the action.

With Joanne observing from a distance and Cooper closely trailing this activity, John ends up getting deep into the drug trade, a development that eventually leads to him meeting Juan Carlos "El Topo" Pintera (BENJAMIN BRATT), the American head of a Mexican drug cartel. Realizing the danger but recognizing his son's life is in the balance, John does what he can to pull off his ruse.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
There's no denying that people all around the word have substance abuse problems. Whether it's food, cigarettes, alcohol, marijuana or more hardcore drugs, lots of folks are hooked in one way or another on things they ingest that end up changing their current state. And until the underlying cause for such a need is addressed, such use and abuse will continue to rage on. As will any number of causes, laws or so-called wars to put an end to such use and/or the selling of such products to said consumers.

Of course, most of the latter focus is applied to illegal drugs since 1) they're currently against the law; 2) they often are involved in other, more serious criminal behavior; and 3) there's lots of money at stake, both from the traffickers and those attempting to shut them down. Regardless of where you stand on the overall drug issue, it's clear that people full circle are profiting from it, and that our prisons are being filled with casual users (unless you're a celebrity) while many more hardened criminals are out walking the streets.

The war on drugs, the prison issue and the fact that some people make stupid decisions and end up incarcerated are part of the plot and themes of "Snitch," a fairly compelling if occasionally flawed drama that's yet another one of those films "inspired by" true events. In this case, that was the story of James Settembrino who tried to have his son's prison sentence (for selling LSD) lowered by helping prosecutors gather evidence regarding other drug dealers (and which was documented on the TV show "Frontline").

In writer/director Ric Roman Waugh's fictionalized version of that story -- that he co-wrote with Justin Haythe -- a high school senior (Rafi Gavron) is nabbed for possessing a large bag of ecstasy pills he's holding for his friend who's shipped them to him. With the young man facing a minimum of ten years in jail, his businessman father (Dwayne Johnson) convinces a reluctant U.S. Attorney (Susan Sarandon) and a DEA agent (Barry Pepper) to allow him to go undercover and infiltrate the local drug trade in exchange for lessening his time behind bars. He does so using one of his employees (Jon Bernthal) who's an ex-con and introduces him to a dealer (Michael K. Williams), an arrangement that eventually sends him up the food chain to a prized cartel-related catch (Benjamin Bratt).

It all sounds like a Hollywood fantasy along the lines of a family-based, revenge-tinged cinematic cousin to "Taken" with Johnson tagging Liam Neeson and entering the ring for a little "Can you smell what The Rock is cooking?" payback. Knowing next to nothing about the film and basing my "proof" solely on the trailer and TV ads, I assumed this was going to be an action-packed tale of a vigilante dad cleaning house, so to speak, to save his son. While there are some moments of serious action (not surprising considering that Waugh has a stunt background), I was pleasantly surprised that the film is more than just a nearly two-hour, dumbed-down, testosterone-fueled collection of cinematic mayhem.

To be accurate and dispel any thoughts that might be entering your head, this isn't Oscar-caliber material, nor is it brilliant anyway one might look at it. But it's solid from start to finish, and once I got over what initially felt like a far-fetched plot development (the feds allowing a layman to go undercover and get info on the bad guys to lessen his son's pending sentence), it was fairly easy to go along on this ride.

Notwithstanding his way over-the-top antics and melodrama of his professional wrestling days, I've always found Johnson compelling as an actor, but often felt he wasn't being used properly. While the fit here isn't absolutely perfect (he's still a towering presence that makes it a bit difficult to believe some much smaller street thugs could beat him up), for the most part I bought the actor in his role and believed in his quest.

While Sarandon really isn't given much opportunity to do anything with her one-note character (which also holds true for Nadine Velazquez and Lela Loren as the wives to the two men who put their families at risk by their behavior), Johnson benefits from solid to strong performances from most of those accompanying him. That includes Williams as a magnetic but scary drug dealer; Pepper as the DEA agent trying to bring him down; and especially Bernthal who's quite convincing as the ex-con who gets sucked back into the biz despite knowing he shouldn't.

With really just two big action sequences (the latter showcasing the filmmaker's stunt pedigree working with vehicles the old fashioned way), this ends up being more of a character-driven film rather than the pedal to the metal mayhem the advertisements suggest. While fans of the latter might be a bit disappointed that it doesn't live up to their expectations in that regard, there's more than enough here to keep them and everyone else interested enough to see how things play out. Not perfect but far better than I imagined it would turn out, you can tell everyone you know just that, and not feel like you're being judged as a "The Rock" and/or action movie addict. "Snitch" rates as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed February 19, 2013 / Posted February 22, 2013

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