Bruce Willis, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger all struggled in recent weeks to bring that '80s action movie vibe into 2013. Bullet to the Head and The Last Stand tanked at the box office, while A Good Day to Die Hard proved unworthy of its franchise predecessors.
Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson's new film aims for a different decade and scores a direct hit.
Snitch feels like a throwback to '70s-era action movies, from its socially conscious content to an emphasis on character over car crashes.
Johnson plays John Matthews, a blue collar construction boss whose life is shattered when his son (Rafi Gavron) is arrested on charges of drug possession and trafficking. The kid got conned by a buddy, but federal mandatory minimum laws mean the teen is looking at 10 years behind bars.
John knows his son can't do that much time, but the only way for the sentence to be reduced is for his son to snitch on someone. Only the teen refuses to rat out his pals, leaving John with one option - infiltrate a drug cartel and give the feds a big enough name to set the boy free.
That might sound improbable, but the film is inspired by actual events.
Creative license tells us that real-life father probably couldn't pump as much iron as Johnson can, but the ex-wrestler is partially convincing as someone over his head in physical confrontations. John Matthews isn't a Superman. He's a father trying to save his son, and Johnson conveys that anguish in a way some won't expect.
Director/co-writer Ric Roman Waugh excels at establishing the world John is forced to enter, from the uncomfortable codes of conduct embraced by drug dealers to the sights of their office spaces. Waugh gets help from a crack supporting cast, from The Walking Dead's Jon Bernthal as a conflicted ex-con to Susan Sarandon as a duplicitous politician.
Barry Pepper deserves huzzahs both for his outlandishly original goatee and for playing a DEA agent with far more shades than screen minutes.
Waugh is less successful at fleshing out the father/son dynamic. We need another scene that goes beyond the boilerplate emotional buttons depressed for our benefit, and the occasionally trite dialogue hardly helps.
Snitch isn't just a test of Johnson's evolving screen presences. The film's anger at mandatory minimum drug sentences is palpable, a theme tying the film to its co-producing studio Participant Media. You won't need a monocle to spot the talking points, but by the time they arrive you're invested in John's plight and shrug off the more direct emotional nudges against the current laws.
Snitch marks a refreshing change for Johnson, even if the upcoming G.I. Joe: Retaliation and Fast and Furious 6 drop him back into his indestructible comfort zone.