Neither a family-friendly comedy — a genre that the wrestler-turned-actor seems to have in an inescapable head lock — nor a flat-out action flick, “Snitch” requires little of its star other than a look of perpetual consternation.
He is more than up to the task.
Johnson plays John Matthews, a man who volunteers to go undercover for the DEA in order to get the criminal sentence reduced for his 20-year-old son (Rafi Gavron), a first-time offender who has been caught in a drug sting and who faces 10 years in prison under stiff mandatory sentencing laws.
Although the job is dangerous, John is no vigilante hero. Much of his assignment consists of him driving a semi stashed with cash or coke. When he finally goes a tiny bit rogue, after being pushed deeper than he’d like by both the slimy district attorney (Susan Sarandon) and the slimier Mexican cartel boss she’s after (Benjamin Bratt), it’s hardly Johnson at his action-hero best.
If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen him awkwardly firing a shotgun out the window of a speeding 18-wheeler at pursuing goons, a look of abject terror on his face. It’s exciting enough, as chase scenes go, but hardly Schwarzenegger material. Johnson does more heavy lifting in the scenes where he’s emoting to his son through the window of the jailhouse visiting area.
That’s because the character of John is essentially a big piece of meat, baiting a hook. After his DEA handler (Barry Pepper) decides to forego the arrest of Malik (Michael K. Williams), the small-time dealer he’s originally after, for Malik’s Mexican supplier, John starts to suspect that he’s being used. He also starts to suspect that he’s disposable and that if he doesn’t watch out he’s going to end up stuffed inside a metal drum filled with acid in Juarez.
At least that’s what Pepper’s Agent Cooper tells him. As usual, Pepper is a real treat to watch, behind what may be the world’s gnarliest beard. And Jon Bernthal is fine in his role as Daniel, the not-quite-reformed ex-con who introduces John to the underworld. Daniel is the closest thing to an action hero here, with Johnson doing everything in his power to seem like the clueless family man who’s never picked up a gun before.
Other than that little role reversal, however, there’s little that we haven’t seen before (in, say, “Contraband” and its ilk).
“Snitch” is protein-and-starch filmmaking at its utilitarian — and belly-filling — best. Johnson brings the steak; Bernthal the sizzle. The father-son drama is served up as sauce on the side. But as long as the beef isn’t too overcooked, who needs the A1?
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains violence and some obscenity. 95 minutes.