Johnson — formerly known as the Rock — has built his film career primarily in projects designed to emulate the work of the “old guard.” Near the beginning of 2003's “Rundown,” one of Johnson's earliest starring roles, Schwarzenegger is onscreen for about 10 seconds, exiting a club as Johnson enters and muttering “Have fun!” — a cute symbolic passing of the torch.
Johnson also gets points for his choice of supporting roles, primarily in comedies: He was frankly wonderful in “Be Cool,” the commercially unsuccessful sequel to “Get Shorty.”
In “Snitch,” he plays John Matthews, a self-made man with a successful hauling company, a happy second marriage and an unhappy first wife. His relatively smooth life is thrown offtrack, however, when Jason (Rafi Gavron), his 18-year-old son from the first marriage, is the fall guy in a drug bust that he had nothing to do with. The kid faces a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years, unless he rats someone out — the same threat that forced his best friend to set him up.
Jason is insistent that he won't narc out the minor druggies he knows. He refuses to do unto others what has been done unto him. At the same time, it's clear that, in detention, he is immediately tagged as easy pickings for bullies, sadists and (implied but never confirmed) rapists.
The ruthless though not entirely evil U.S. Attorney (Susan Sarandon) says there's nothing to be done. The only way for Jason to get out is to cooperate in nailing a higher-up. Since he refuses, Dad offers himself as a surrogate: He'll nail someone on his own steam, thus fulfilling Jason's obligation. This sounds like a harebrained idea, but — in a development that requires more than a little suspension of disbelief — the U.S. attorney tells him to go ahead.
Daniel (Jon Bernthal), an ex-con in his employ, is a two-time loser trying to support his family by going straight. He won't have anything to do with the scheme, but John — needing someone to connect him to the drug underworld — finally offers him so much money that he can't refuse. We're generally rooting for John, but here he is truly morally dirtied.
From the start, “Snitch” feels a little different from the rest of the season's testosterone films. There is no huge opening action sequence setting everything else up (unless you consider a teenager being briefly chased on foot by narcs to be big-time excitement). We're nearly halfway through the film before director/co-writer Ric Roman Waugh pulls out a million squibs for a big bang-bang scene. This is not a bad thing. Johnson's presence and his character's desperation are strong enough to keep us engaged while we wait.
What we do get during this buildup is a little more character background than is conventional and a lot more argument about our ridiculous minimum-sentencing laws. Emotionally, the film sets up both John and Danny with more detail and humanity than recent action films have had time for. Thematically, it drives home its point without getting preachy.
Its rhythm is skewed enough from the mainstream that, after the final big blowout — as my nerves got ready for the mandatory “one more threat” scene that got tiresome about 40 years ago when that hand reached out from the grave in “Carrie” — the movie just ended. The captured drug lord didn't suddenly escape and come back for revenge against John and Danny — to which I say, “Hallelujah!”
--ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).