Sunday 30 June 2013

Snitch (No, Really) by Haythe and Waugh

Big surprise. Snitch is a really outstanding movie. I don't mean to be snotty about it, but this was genuinely quite a surprise to me.

The trouble with Snitch is that it looks like — indeed is being marketed like — just another undemanding action movie starring Dwayne Johnson (aka The Rock). Johnson is a former football player (he played for the University of Miami and, briefly, the Calgary Stampeders in the CFL) and a professional wrestler. In recent years he has proved that he has considerably more acting ability than your average action-man star — and he also has a nice line in ukulele playing.

Nonetheless, he is still best known for routine adventure film franchises like GI Joe and The Fast and the Furious. So it wasn't difficult to see Snitch in that category. Particularly with a poster featuring Johnson, muscles bulging while a juggernaut of a truck crashes in the background.

But Snitch is the real stuff. Far from being an empty headed action spectacle, it's a compelling street level, blue-collar crime thriller. It is more Michael Mann than Michael Bay and you should go and see it before it vanishes from the screens of your local multiplex.

Snitch tells the story of an ordinary businessman who is sucked into the violent world of drug cartels and narcotics cops when his estranged son is busted with a thousand ecstasy tablets. Thanks to America's insanely draconian mandatory-minimum drug sentencing laws the kid is facing ten years in prison unless he rats out his friends — just like his own friend ratted him out. The kid refuses to roll over and his father steps in, offering to finger a drug dealer in return for his son's sentence reduction.

The obscenity and injustice of the war against drugs and mandatory sentencing gets the audience emotionally involved right away. But the excellent script — by Justin Haythe and director Ric Roman Waugh — doesn't stop there. Johnson's entree into the world of drugs is through an ex-con employee of his (Jon Bernthal). But the ex-con is desperately trying to go straight. And by pressuring him to return to the world of crime, Johnson is effectively destroying the guy and his family.

It's a tough, complex, contorted moral problem and makes this movie vastly superior to most multiplex fare. And the film makers are very much aware of the hideous nature of the war against drugs, as is made apparent by a scorching end-titles card with some facts and figures about the current laws in America.

Writer Justin Haythe's previous script credits include Revolutionary Road, for which he received a BAFTA nomination. Ric Roman Waugh has written and directed In the Shadows and Felon. I haven't seen either of those, but now I want to. And I will be watching out for new movies by both these guys.

Snitch also has a first rate cast including Susan Sarandon as a dubious Federal Prosecutor and Barry Pepper as a scary undercover narc (the casting was by Lindsay Graham and Mary Vernieu). I was also impressed by the photography (by Dana Gonzalez) and the excellent music (by Antonio Pinto, who also scored Mel Gibson's under-rated, quirky thriller How I Spent My Summer Vacation).

Snitch is a high quality production all the way and I recommend it. The film doesn't seem to be getting the audience it deserves, perhaps because the people who would really enjoy it are mistaking it for just another Dwayne Johnson action movie, while his fans are turned off by a movie in which their hero gets the shit kicked out of him by street corner crack dealers.

In many ways, it's the same fate which befell Clint Eastwood when he first tried to broaden his work, with an interesting and excellent film like The Beguiled.

In any case Dwayne Johnson is to be applauded for his courage in this departure and for lending his box office muscle to get a movie like Snitch made.

(Image credits: The shot of Barry Pepper with his scary DEA disguise and handgun is from Flick Minute. The vertical poster ("Justice on his terms") is from Amazon. The shot of Jon Bernthal and his handgun is from Flicks & Bits. The soundtrack cover is from TV Movie Songs. The shot of Sarandon, with Pepper in the background, is from the Providence Journal.)

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