Based on a true story, Snitch centers on John Matthews (Johnson), a successful business owner with a big house, loving family, bitter ex-wife and an estranged son named Jason (Rafi Gavron). But Matthews is deeply devoted to his boy, even when a stupid decision lands him in jail for drug charges that could earn Jason 10 years in prison. Seeking re-election, US Attorney Joanne Keeghan (Susan Sarandon) refuses to pull strings to get Matthews' son out of jail?unless he can snitch on a bigger dealer. So, Matthews steps into the world of hard drugs, hoping to find enough intel that he can spare his boy conviction.
This drama is earnest in its storytelling, but stumbles in its execution. Johnson is painfully miscast, playing a supposedly powerless everyman who must pose as a tough guy to win the trust of dangerous drug dealers. The costume department diligently attempts to play down Johnson's massive muscles with dress shirts, but it doesn't work. He still looks like a professional bodybuilder, which makes it laughable when he is beaten up with ease by a bunch of teen pushers. Worse yet, there are no fight scenes for Johnson to show his stuff in. There are action sequences?including a pretty intense one involving a high speed chase with loads of gunplay?but never any hand-to-hand combat, which means his trademark brawn is not just hidden, it's wasted.
Instead, Johnson is asked to rely on his acting chops?which let's be honest?is not his strongest skill set. He's a great screen presence; he's not a great actor. Scenes between him and Sarandon are actually hard to watch. The dialogue doesn't help, filled as it is with clunky and on-the-nose lines. But barred from being a badass, Johnson delivers his lines with dead eyes and a flat tone. In response, Sarandon goes into overdrive, chewing scenery to the point where?I admit?she won me over completely. It was bonkers, but at least she was entertaining.
There are also some strange structural issues. Nearly half of the movie is spent on an ex-con gone legit who Matthews bullies into getting him into the drug game. Played by The Walking Dead's Jon Bernthal, the character is compelling but seems a distraction from the main plot line. The question of what would happen to this two-strike offender when Matthews brings in the DEA is ignored for most of the film, which is bizarre considering we meet the guy's entire family and get monologues about his attempts to start over. Similarly strange is Matthew's neglect of how his actions (dealing with deadly drug cartels to save his son from a previous marriage) will impact his new wife and young daughter.
Snitch is a movie that overreaches. Waugh, who co-wrote the script with Justin Haythe (Revolutionary Road), doesn't seem ready for such straightforward drama. Johnson isn't prepared for a role this emotionally demanding, and really he is physically unsuited for the part of an underestimated everyman. There are amusing turns from Sarandon and Barry Pepper?as a DEA agent with the worst facial hair ever constructed?but even with Bernthal's soulful subplot, this drama lacks momentum and weight. The highlight of the film is definitely the final action sequence teased on its poster, where a semi truck careens around a highway, fending off gun-toting baddies. But there's not enough action for this feature to satisfy on that score. All muddled together, this makes for a movie that's sometimes crazy enough to work, but often bland.