I was about ten minutes into Rampage when I realized I had seen this movie before. The situation will be built up to extreme peril. Dwayne Johnson will utilize the skills conveniently part of his character’s makeup. He will be convincing, charismatic. He will save the day. Sure, there are giant video-game monsters in Rampage, but the concept is basically a fill in the blank. You could substitute the scenario with the biggest earthquake of all time, or the biggest building in the world and get basically the same movie. In watching Rampage, I longed for something smaller, muted, more serious that allows Johnson the actor to take center stage. We already had such a movie – 2013’s Snitch.
You’d be forgiven if you forgot or didn’t know about Snitch, an anomaly among Johnson’s filmography. Here, Johnson doesn’t get any one-liners; he doesn’t raise his epic brow or flex his glorious pecs. (As far as wardrobe, he is as layered as you will ever see him in a movie.) Snitch isn’t a reboot, sequel, or a video game adaptation; it’s the rare Dwayne Johnson drama vehicle.
Johnson’s done dramas before, but these days it’s so far and few in between. I have no problem with him doing escapist, high-concept fare like Rampage or Jumanji (And, based on the box office receipts, neither do audiences.) I just wish Johnson would roll down his sleeves more. We KNOW he can do action. We KNOW he can be funny. His recent batch of films fully allow his persona to fill the frame. Snitch is all the more impressive for being less about Johnson the entertainer and more about the character he’s playing.
Johnson plays John Matthews (Christ, even his characters’ names sound big), a family man and the head of a construction company. It’s the most plain jane setup for any of his roles whom often come bearing ex-military experience and top-dog accolades. John Matthews is otherwise just a father. His son Jason gets busted for a startling amount of ecstasy and finds himself facing 10 years in prison for alleged distribution. He could serve the maximum sentence unless he rolls on an accomplice. Enter his father who agrees to help the D.A. make arrests on behalf of his son for reduced jail time.
You can imagine the super-charged Michael Bay version of this movie: Johnson punching his way through the prison to get his son out, or getting arrested to protect his son from everybody in the yard. I can envision him taking on the cartel Commando-style. Hell, I can even see a court-room thriller where Johnson single-handedly repeals the mandatory minimum sentencing laws, his fist as the gavel. All the courageous, larger-than-life scenarios that suit a larger-than-life man.
It’s not that Johnson isn’t believable as an everyman, it’s just that his name comes with a certain blockbuster expectation. Snitch forgoes all of that in service of a very real social-issue. The mandatory sentencing laws were designed for defendants to snitch on their associates. More than half of the convictions are first-time offenders, thus no one major to implicate. It was Jason’s own best friend who set him up for the sake of reducing his own sentence, and now Jason must do the same. This real-world peril (a premise straight out of The Wire) is what spurs Johnson’s character into action, but it’s not the usual Action-Johnson.
In one scene, Matthews looks up the drug trade on Wikipedia and it has the intended effect. Johnson’s characters are ever capable, always knowledgeable. Matthews is unique because he doesn’t have the skills necessary to tackle the situation. He is woefully and refreshingly out of his element. Why would he know about the cartel otherwise? His family is thrown into an extraordinary situation and Johnson has to play it like he’s out of his depth, whereas for most of his characters this situation would be a walk in the park.
Matthews enlists the help of an ex-con employee played by the always thrilling Jon Bernthal. (Yes, he rubs his head a few times.) Cast-wise, Snitch is rather astonishing. Barry Pepper, sporting an epic beard, plays a no-bullshit DEA agent; a sparsely used Benjamin Bratt exudes gravitas as a cartel kingpin; The Wire’s Michael K. Williams is perhaps the only person who can plausibly ignite fear in Dwayne Johnson; there’s David Harbour aka Sheriff Hopper as an expository-heavy lawyer who fills us in on the legal ramifications; and Susan Sarandon plays a stern D.A. who goes by the moniker “Dragon Lady.”
Johnson can size up any one of these people and yet his character is beholden to them and their rules. He can’t fight or out-moxie his way out of this because there’s no overpowering the law. Johnson’s handicapped in that sense, perhaps more so than in Skyscraper. His character can’t Hobbs or Hercules the situation; he has to work within the parameters of the justice system to find a solution. This is Johnson at his most compelling, when he’s stuck between a rock and a hard place.
This is also Johnson at his most somber. Snitch takes away his most valuable weapon as a charismatic performer: his winning smile. Johnson smiles all of twice in the film. That’s it. Consider what the movie asks him to do, or not do. The film hides his muscles, strips away his adeptness at fight scenes and action in general, and forces him not to smile.
So how does a 6’5’’, 250 lbs guy express things like vulnerability, anxiety, desperation? Johnson is boxed-in in that manner. He can’t explode like Leonardo DiCaprio. It just wouldn’t be believable. That’s his Achilles’ heel. His imposing figure and BAMF-track record all but renders tears and outbursts rather meaningless. Johnson, instead, uses stillness. His stoicism conveys just how confined and powerless Matthews is. Being an action-heavy actor, this restraint is enormously felt. His voice, too, is whisper quiet like he’s suffocating beneath the circumstances. When he’s visiting his son in prison, it feels interpersonal, like we’re in the booth with them. (You might forget who’s really imprisoned.) Director Ric Roman Waugh puts the actors at the far side of the frame as if we have to angle around and listen in. This is the rare film where Johnson actually feels smaller than the world around him.
As a crime thriller, Snitch is rather predictable. Matthews get his introduction to the drug world, “auditions” and proves his worth, gets offered a game-changing opportunity and then decides to take matters into his own hands. This is perhaps the common denominator in all of his films where Johnson turns into a one-man army of sorts, but in the finale he is just one small cog. He doesn’t get to take down the bad guy this time. That baton is extended to Jon Bernthal and Barry Pepper.
The action is surprisingly mundane and un-stylized – the complete opposite of your typical set-piece. We’ve seen Johnson use dual shotguns, fire a 50 cal. AT THE HIP, and mow down a chopper with a mini-gun. This was the same year that he starred in G.I. Joe: Retaliation, Pain & Gain, AND Furious 6, all of them showing off Johnson’s badass physical prowess. Snitch, however, demands awkwardness in car chases and firefights, things he’d fully command and own. This is what I love most about the film. Johnson is forced to take the back seat and let everyone else take the lead.
Sure, the dialogue is often too on the nose and the film is heavy-handed with its message, but I love the dramatic challenge that the role imposes on Johnson. It’s one of the reasons why I love Pain & Gain in which he plays a cocaine-sniffing, god-loving bodybuilder. (Maybe Snitch was a prelude?) He can’t quite shed his muscles or his size, but he can make us believe that he isn’t impervious to vulnerability. For a moment, we are just like him, or he is just like us.
Dwayne Johnson’s got the Fast & Furious spinoff with Jason Statham and a live-action Jungle Cruise set for next year. Afterwards he will re-team with Rampage’s director Brad Peyton for a sequel to San Andreas, followed by an original project with Skyscaper’s Rawson Marshall Thunder called Red Notice – a movie that will pit him with fellow DC superhero-star Gal Gadot. Let’s not forget Johnson’s set to play Shazam’s ultimate baddie Black Adam somewhere down the line, and somehow he’s doing HBO’s Ballers in the middle of all of this. Johnson seems to be eyeing down high-concept studio fanfare onto eternity – a career trap/trajectory similar to action stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, and Bruce Willis. I will be just as eager as anybody to see how these projects turn out, but I do hope for a return to the dramatic for Dwayne Johnson, to movies that dial down the persona. Because Johnson’s proven that when he wants to, the man can ditch the man and deliver something that Schwarzenegger, Stallone, and Willis give once in a blue moon – a genuine performance.