Niagara Gazette

February 27, 2013

CALLERI: With action movie 'Snitch,' personality counts for something

By Michael Calleri
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — Action movies are a dime a dozen in Hollywood, and people eagerly line up for the opportunity to participate in them. They are relatively easy to make, earn scads of money around the world, and are more about fire power than brain power. It’s rare that a film relying on car chases and ricocheting bullets has anything up its sleeve other than a desire to entertain.

There have been a number of action adventures this movie season, including Jason Statham’s “Parker,” Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “The Last Stand,” Sylvester Stallone’s “Bullet To The Head,” and the fifth John McClane film, “A Good Day To Die Hard,” which features the indefatigable Bruce Willis as the eternally angry New York City detective.

The Schwarzenegger and the Stallone movies bombed at the North American box office, which, because of the excessive explosions in them, is some sort of wacky example of life imitating art. “A Good Day To Die Hard” is fading fast in the United States, but is huge overseas. The film is a mere shadow of what we expect from Willis and McClane. If the first “Die Hard” is a classic with a great villain in Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber, then the latest effort is a pale imitation; muddled, unfocused, and seems to have been made only to showcase insane weaponry and the barren destruction of Chernobyl. There isn’t even a good villain. Because I like Statham’s concept of what an action hero should be, I enjoyed “Parker,” which has solid character elements in it.

We now have “Snitch” starring Dwayne Johnson. He also calls himself “The Rock,” primarily because he’s a mass of human physicality, an honest to goodness real-life Hulk, and when push comes to shove, as in the professional wrestling ring, an unmovable object. Adding to his massive presence is his superhero voice and pleasant personality, which makes him a natural for motion pictures.

“Snitch” is a rarity, an action film with a message. Loosely based on a true story, the feature involves a father’s devotion to his son and their entanglement with a tough U.S. government bureaucracy. According to the movie, there are more Americans in jail because of drug charges than for violent crimes, especially murder.

Johnson plays John Matthews, a good citizen who owns a construction company and pays his taxes and is certainly kind to puppies and kittens. One night he’s mugged by four punks, which is the film’s way of telling us that he’s a lover not a fighter. The idea of “The Rock” loosing the altercation is absurd, but you go with it. The violence at the beginning is a trick, put in only to alert the audience to be prepared for about thirty minutes of exposition before the action kicks in.

Meanwhile, John’s college-bound son Jason (played by Rafi Gavron), a nerdy type who seems to be the only nerd in America without a brain, is talked by a friend into accepting a package of the illegal drug Ecstasy. The shipment is being watched by the Feds, and Jason is busted. He will receive a mandatory 10 years in jail. His earnest father is desperate to convince the hard-edged U. S. Attorney (Susan Sarandon) that his mousy son would not survive being in a very tough Federal prison for 10 years. You want to shout to the screen: “Who would?”

After much set-up, and a little too much meandering, dad agrees to a deal for his son. The kid will go to prison for just 2 years if he takes part in a similar sting. Jason refuses, goes to jail, and gets assaulted. In order to free his son, an infuriated John now agrees to participate in a bigger sting, which the U.S. Attorney is convinced will lead to the ringleader of a drug cartel. A determined Sarandon is joined by an obnoxious Fed played by Barry Pepper in working out the rules, and the drug trail will lead to bad guy Benjamin Bratt. Remember, this is allegedly true.

Director Ric Roman Waugh, a former stuntman, has a passion for making movies about injustice. He directed a 2008 film called “Felon,” which is a scary look at unjust incarceration. “Snitch” is based on a PBS Frontline episode from 1999, also entitled “Snitch.” The movie is co-written by Waugh and Justin Haythe, whose screenplay for “Revolutionary Road” is quite good.

It’s clear that stars Johnson and Sarandon, director Waugh, and screenwriter Haythe are passionate about rolling back excessive punishment for non-violent crimes. “Snitch” goes slightly off-balance when it shifts from legal drama to action thriller as Johnson transforms himself from caring dad to gun-toting problem solver, but it’s entertaining nonetheless. Call it harmless fun and a little bit informative.

Michael Calleri reviews films for Night and Day. Contact him at moviecolumn@gmail.com.

Michael Calleri reviews films for Night and Day. Contact him at moviecolumn@gmail.com.