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A socially conscious action adventure, Snitch is an indictment of our country’s federal minimum-punishment guidelines for drug offenses. The film is, of course, repulsed by the inhumane violence and pervasive corruption of drug gangs, but the legal system’s regular infliction of draconian prison sentences puts government in an especially bad light. Often these victims are first-time drug offenders who are turned in by snitches in order to lighten their own sentences. These relatively innocent – or at least very minor – criminals are given prison stays much harsher than those handed out to rapists and murders. (This isn’t two-dimensional, knee-jerk liberal hysteria: I’ve personally known of a couple of different cases in which people lured by close friends into relatively minor roles in drug transactions ended up with long stays behind bars.)
John Matthews (Johnson) heads up a transportation company that utilizes a number of 18-wheelers for transportation. His son, Jason (Gavron), who lives with Matthews’ ex-wife, Sylvie Collins (Kanakaredes), and uses her last name, is aggressively talked into accepting a drug shipment from one of his closest friends. Unfortunately, it’s a DEA trap that’s been set up by this friend in a plea deal to reduce his own sentence. Jason, who honestly knows no drug dealers, refuses to set up any of his friends, and is thus put behind bars to await what will be a mandatory 10-year sentence. As soon as he is imprisoned, he is repeatedly beaten by fellow inmates.
Outraged and distressed, Matthews decides he must take matters into his own hands by finding and setting up a drug dealer of sufficient status that his bust will substantially reduce his son’s sentence. The film moves in this direction with a passionate fury that’s outraged by flawed and harmful government policy and exploitative politicians. Along the way, it ignores much of the moral quicksand through which it is forced to travel. Not the least is Matthews using an employee who’s an ex-con who’s now gone straight (Bernthal) to help set up a drug dealer. Matthews not only lures him back into the criminal life with an exaggerated financial offer, but also sets the man up for criminal retribution without his knowledge.
Over the last few years, Johnson has proven himself as the most unlikely and least-expected action hero to emerge as a skilled comedic and talented actor. Here he really makes the film work, though the entire cast is also excellent. Unfortunately, Snitch is torn between being an ideological drama and a more traditional action film – and Johnson’s presence only contributes to the confusion. Ultimately, despite some lively action sequences, the film is much more a confused yet tense and suspenseful thriller. It’s a story of multilevel betrayals in which most characters lack any purpose greater than doing what’s best for themselves, their careers, and their families and associates.