Movies are a special time, where for two hours people will sit down in an air conditioned theater and stare at whatever you want to show them all the while they are paying you for the privilege. This means that for some directors, the opportunity to send some kind of message, teach people a lesson about things they might have ignored or not known about is too much to let go to waste. It’s important to try and give some sort of moral compass to what mindless jargon gets filmed, but like so many movies before “Snitch”, the forgotten lesson is that you can’t moralize on top of a weak story. Neil Blomkamp’s “District 9” is a story that tries to send a message, and it works because of how the narrative follows a natural progression in line with the lesson it’s trying to teach. Impoverished aliens wind up forced into a ghetto in South Africa where a shady corporation comes with intentions of harnessing the technology the aliens are unable to share with them. That story is big, and because it’s so big it can hide what it really wants to say. The movie is really about an apartheid regime abusing and taking advantage of a weakened people undermined by internal strife caused by poverty, quarreling factions, and bigotry.
Then Blomkamp tried to do that again with “Elysium” and instead of high praise he got mixed reviews. It’s the story of a man with less than a week to live who needs to make it to a space station where the technology to cure him exists. The problem with this movie was that the story was a lot weaker in comparison to the message being conveyed. It’s a world where income disparity is extreme and the wealthy horde all the technology that can make the world better. It tries to be an allegory for the present day problems of border jumping for better healthcare and an escape from poverty, but the story has too many inconsistencies in that take away from the overall message. I bring up Blomkamp’s movies because the same thing is attempted in “Snitch” as “District 9” and “Elysium”, only the later two weren’t boring.
After his son is arrested on trumped up charges of possession and intent to distribute, John Matthews (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) strikes a deal with the district attorney to incriminate members of the local drug trade for a reduced sentence. Things spiral out of control rather quickly as the higher ups of the local cartel see potential use for Matthews as a runner for the illicit material they need in Mexico.
In the beginning, it seems like the movie wants to tell a serious story about the problems inherent in the war on drugs; incarceration of non-violent offenders, predatory arrest methods, mandatory minimum sentencing failures, and too much power granted to career politicians. For the most part it actually works. The arrest is big and heavy. The hopelessness of confronting the people in charge for any assistance really displays the self interest at work in the system. No one in the public eye wants to appear soft on crime, yet the “criminals” they seem to go after are kids in high school. However, it quickly becomes apparent that this is as far as the movie is going to go, instead rolling over to becoming a cheap action movie. Then it just up and dies, instead becoming a movie about the Rock driving around, talking, and running away from anything interesting that’s happening.
What’s worse is that the message it was trying to send in the first place gets muddled by the action it needs to keep the audience interested. A kid gets arrested for giving into peer pressure, a district attorney that sees a desperate father as a tool, people crying to their loved ones for them to stop doing dangerous things. Then suddenly everything about the war on drugs seems warranted when guys with big guns start storming the place and shooting up everything with innocent people in the crossfire. What kind of message was this movie trying to send again? In attempting to deliver an action movie it winds up defending the very thing it’s railing against.
The biggest problem is that the Rock just does not fit in this role. He’s supposed to be a business man (which for a moment is actually believable, until you realize that the extent of this is him wearing button down shirts) who gets into drug running to save his company, or at least that’s the cover story he’s using. It means introducing himself to gangsters (cold blooded killers) as someone whose disposition is nervous and overwhelmed, completely backwards to the Rock as a person who’s big and the character’s he gets typecast as! He’s talking to people one fourth his size who constantly act like he’s an ant under their boot. Sure a gun is quite the counter measure to a fist, but in a movie that’s trying to play up both action and drama it’s impossible to reconcile just who this guy is. Is he just trying to get by and save his son, or is he going to stomp faces? This should have been a character played by someone half his size, whose stature could be seriously overshadowed by the kinds of people he needs to get in contact with. Instead you spend the whole time wondering why this guy isn’t flipping tables and cracking skulls underneath his massive arms.
That said, his acting wasn’t that bad. Unfit for the role maybe, but let it not be said that the Rock is a bad actor. The thing is, when the Rock is carrying the movie by himself with his performance, that is not a good thing. Benjamin Bratt as a drug lord is absolutely laughable, but the standout worst performance here was definitely Susan Sarandon as the apathetic and ambitious district attorney. She phones in her performance so hard her character may as well have been a cellphone attached to the end of a fishing line. Underwritten characters are always a problem in movies like these because making room for the ‘splosions is most important, but here it seems like they forgot to add any. This movie has two big action scenes for its two hour running time. For all the talk about prison destroying young lives for stupid decisions, we don’t actually get a good look at it. The actual metamorphosis whereby kids enter the cocoon of a federal penitentiary and come out scarred and jaded butterflies is all but glossed over for the sake of going nowhere with the main plot. I honestly can’t even tell how long he’s supposed to have been in prison, or even how much time the movie is supposed to take place over. It’s a forgettable movie, but you already knew that from the fact that Dwayne Johnson is the only actor on the poster. Proceed with caution.