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Movie Review — ‘Snitch’

He’s made a career out of portraying over-the-top characters, ranging from an ancient Egyptian king to the Tooth Fairy. But in “Snitch,” Dwayne Johnson is finally stymied by his most mundane role yet: an ordinary dad.

The filmmakers try their best to conceal the current WWE champion’s massive physique, burying him under long sleeves and bulky jackets. But when your hero is supposed to be an everyday businessman, completely out of his element as he tries to protect himself and his loved ones from vicious drug lords, it doesn’t help your cause when audiences have come to assume he could single-handedly dismantle the entire cartel with a two-by-four.

Johnson stars as John Matthews, the affable owner of a construction company whose world unravels when his estranged 18-year-old son, Jason (Rafi Gavron), is arrested for drug trafficking.

Jason just wanted to try a couple of hits of Ecstasy with his girlfriend, so he agreed to hold some for a day for a friend. But when that friend was caught trying to ship the drugs, he claimed Jason was a dealer and sold him out to the DEA for a shorter sentence.

Facing a minimum of 10 years in prison, the feds make Jason the same offer: give them someone else, and he’ll be out in a year. The only dealer he knows, though, is the one who already turned on him.

And, no matter how much John and his ex-wife (Melina Kanakaredes) beg, nor how strongly his lawyer advises it, Jason won’t set up another innocent friend. Not that prosecutors would care, the filmmakers would have you believe, so long as there are more arrests to be made.

“Snitch,” written by director Ric Roman Waugh (“Felon”) and Justin Haythe (“Revolutionary Road”), is at its worst as a “message movie,” relying on statistics and indictments of mandatory minimum sentencing laws that are as heavy-handed as anything you’d see in an Afterschool Special.

But the somber drama rights itself, somewhat, once John persuades a manipulative, politically ambitious U.S. Attorney (a completely against-type Susan Sarandon) to let him bring down dealers instead of Jason.

Before long, he’s Wikipedia-ing drug cartels and getting pummeled during a botched cocaine buy.

But John finds an unwitting ally in Daniel (Jon Bernthal, “The Walking Dead”), a recent hire at his construction company who’s determined to go legit after a trafficking conviction.

Claiming he wants to use his 18-wheelers to transport drugs because he needs the extra cash to keep his business afloat, John pays Daniel to introduce him to his former partner and fellow two-striker, Malik (Michael K. Williams, “The Wire’s” Omar, who portrays violent criminals the way Daniel Day-Lewis portrays everyone else).

Benjamin Bratt turns up as a Mexican cartel boss, which mostly just makes you think, “Hey, there’s Benjamin Bratt playing a Mexican cartel boss.”

Barry Pepper fares better as a grizzled DEA agent with a can’t-take-your-eyes-off-it goatee that looks like it was birthed after a one-night stand involving any of the beards from “Duck Dynasty” and the ones in ZZ Top.

Honestly, that goatee is so fantastic, it deserves its own spinoff.

“Snitch,” though, is Johnson’s movie, and it plays to exactly none of his varied, formidable strengths.

He has charisma to burn, but never gets to display it.

Aside from a brief gun battle (in which he doesn’t participate) and the climactic big-rig stunt that proves that snitches really do get stitches, “Snitch” offers the mandatory minimum of action.

Johnson doesn’t get to lay down a single, solitary smack.

He proves perfectly capable of handling the dramatic bits, but there’s still the lingering feeling that he was miscast. Especially when his presence has conditioned audiences to expect a bout of bone-crunching retribution that’s never going to come.

“Snitch” would been have been better served with a more slightly built actor — granted, that’s pretty much everybody in the Western Hemisphere — not known for his big-screen heroics.

Somewhere in the development process, the People’s Eyebrow isn’t the only one that should have been raised.

• • •

Christopher Lawrence is the film critic for the Las Vegas (NV) Review-Journal. Contact him at clawrence@reviewjournal.com

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