Duane Johnson’s casting as John Matthews first comes off as a misfire. He’s an alpha male, a father, a successful blue collar business owner, who happens to look like the Rock, swagger like the Rock, and even cock his head abruptly during conversation as if to smell what is cooking. John Matthews spends the first thirty minutes of Snitch as a typical action hero waiting for glorious combat. When the feds frame his pampered son as a drug dealer, Matthews is not content to let the legal process play out. The boy faces a mandatory minimum of 10 years of prison time, with 30 a real possibility.
The only out from the sentence is to turn snitch on a bigger fish up the drug distribution chain. Matthew’s son though was framed by the only drug source he knew, and besides choses to take his chances with the judicial system. For his grit, the younger Matthews is chewed up on arrival, getting assaulted by his fellow inmates.
John takes matters into his own hands, piloting his oversized American truck right into the dark part of town. If his son won’t turn over a drug dealer, then John will. When he attempts to buy cocaine from a corner dealer he winds up mugged, beaten down to the ground in the crack of a bat. All the action film signifiers in the world couldn’t give Matthews an edge in a street fight. For the remainder of the film all those Rock-isms disappear. If Matthews is going to survive in this world he’ll need a guide.
Snitch reveals its true colors. This is a film that mimics reality far more than the typical action flick. No attempt is made to hide Duane Johnson’s frame, he’s often the tallest man in a shot, but this is a world of equalizers. People attack in coordinated groups, they use weapons. It’s clear despite his physique that Matthews is no fighter, nor is he tactical enough to use surprise to his advantage.
Given all this when the film closes with an car chase/shootout sequence that reverts to standard-action-film-logic, it feels well-earned more than a cheat. It’s a given that any lead character in this sort of film will be a bit luckier than us mere audience members, no matter how much the filmmakers want to underscore their mortality. So it is here.
Snitch is still a B-movie though, with made to order Big Bad Villains right off the hollywood heap: the mid-tier hood gangsta (Michael K. Williams); the latino kingpin (Benjamin Bratt); the opportunistic soulless symbol of our broken system (Susan Sarandon). All of whom enliven their stereotype ever so slightly. Watching from the sidelines is an especially sad-eyed Barry Pepper as a DEA agent leapfrogging from snitch to snitch, providing finality to man-made catastrophes.
The film ends with a liberal tag line about the unfairness of mandatory minimums but its lasting impression indicts the whole war on drugs. This is a coliseum that demands gladiators, snatching unsuspecting participants right out of comfortable civilian life. Pepper’s Agent Cooper describes how the cartels constantly recruit new mules only somewhat aware that the federal government lured Matthews in under a similar ruse.
It now seems we’re closer to the end of the War on Drugs than the beginning. Snitch feels like an artifact of these times from the future. A vision of the present that shows both ends of the illegal drug trade as practicing self destruction.