Dwayne Johnson stars in the Summit

Writer-director Ric Roman Waugh spins a realistic situation into a crazy vigilante story.

Though few American laws are more unforgiving than drug-related mandatory minimum sentences, “Snitch” finds a loophole big enough to drive a semi-trailer through. Designed to make empathetic citizens question the system, this strangely compelling issue pic plays less to auds’ hearts than to their craving for testosterone, inventing a worst-case scenario in which a freight-company owner (Dwayne Johnson) agrees to snare a cartel kingpin by transporting huge loads of narcotics across state lines to reduce his son’s 10-year jail time. Despite being more dramatic than explosive, “Snitch” should land in the $25 million-$30 million range — a typical non-franchise haul for the Rock.

Inspired by a 1999 episode of PBS’ “Frontline,” writer-director Ric Roman Waugh spins a realistic situation into a crazy vigilante story, stretching the newsmag’s hypothetical questions — “What would you do if the government came knocking on your door telling you that you will get 30 years in prison unless you inform on somebody? Or that your child will get 20 years unless he informs?” — to almost science-fiction lengths.

Waugh and co-writer Justin Haythe’s cardboard script lays things out real simple-like, playing the sympathy card from the start: A naive teen, Jason (Rafi Gavron), is busted by drug-enforcement agents after agreeing to hold his friend’s Ecstasy stash for a few days. In a high-volume drug possession case such as his (where quantities suggest an intent to sell), virtually the only way to reduce a stiff mandatory sentence is for the suspect to rat out a fellow dealer. But this kid has no such contacts, so he faces the full 10 years.

If the system were on trial, the travesty would be the fact that major dealers are best poised to commute their penalties, whereas small-timers get stuck doing time because they have less to offer. Waugh would like to redress that imbalance, but since courtroom dramas aren’t nearly as fun to watch as action movies, he focuses on a one-of-a-kind plea bargain between the kid’s concerned dad, John Matthews (Johnson), and hardass federal prosecutor Joanne Keeghan (Susan Sarandon, who makes strict seem sexy), who is seeking re-election, and therefore willing to go easy on Jason in exchange for a high-profile arrest.

Preposterous as it sounds, such arrangements are not unheard of; the “Frontline” segment detailed how real-life father James Settembrino worked with law enforcement to entrap drug dealers so his 18-year-old son would get less time (though the prosecutor later reneged on their deal). Something similar happens in “Snitch,” forcing John deeper undercover as Keeghan and ambitious DEA agent Cooper (Barry Pepper) realize they don’t have to settle for “two-striker” Malik (Michael K. Williams), but can use Matthews to bait a big cartel boss (Benjamin Bratt) known as El Topo.

Though stuntman-turned-helmer Waugh got to know the criminal justice system on 2008’s “Felon,” “Snitch” displays virtually none of the gritty authenticity the genre has developed in recent years, while recycling a few too many of its racial and class stereotypes (such as contrasting innocent suburban James with a gun-toting gangbanger lifted directly from “The Wire”). Technically, the camerawork is crisp but flat, and the locations seem a little too tidy and un-lived-in  — much like the brand-new big rig Matthews drives from Los Angeles to El Paso to collect half a kilo of cocaine from some very bad dudes.

The key players are all family men (including Matthews’ connection to the underworld, played by “The Walking Dead’s” Jon Bernthal), making it hard not to feel that the whole thing has been rigged for maximum indignation. Whereas Settembrino’s kid was caught selling acid, Jason is mostly just dumb and unlucky, allowing the pic to appeal more easily to ordinary parents. Even so, Johnson isn’t so much a relatable figure as a tougher-than-you action hero (curiously, he sounds like President Obama on steroids). It’s nice to have actors of Sarandon and Pepper’s caliber onboard for the office-bound wheeler-dealer scenes, but mostly, it’s the prospect of witnessing Johnson at the helm of an 18-wheeler as he rams his way through machine-gun fire that excites.

“Snitch” may be intended as a critique of America’s war on drugs, but from the look of things here, the ultra-tough approach seems to be working.

A Summit Entertainment release, presented with Exclusive Media, Participant Media, in association with Image Nation Abu Dhabi, of an Exclusive Media production, in association with Front Street Prods. Produce by Nigel Sinclair, Matt Jackson, Jonathan King, Dwayne Johnson, Dany Garcia, Alex Brunner, Tobin Armbrust. Executive producers, Jeff Skoll, Guy East, Becki Cross Trujillo, David Fanning, Justin Haythe. Co-producer, Jillian Longnecker. Directed by Ric Roman Waugh. Screenplay, Justin Haythe, Waugh, inspired by the “Frontline” documentary “Snitch.”

Cast:

John Matthews – Dwayne Johnson
Agent Cooper – Barry Pepper
Daniel James – Jon Bernthal
Joanne Keeghan – Susan Sarandon
Malik – Michael K. Williams
Jason Collins – Rafi Gavron
Sylvie Collins – Melina Kanakaredes
Analisa – Nadine Velazquez
Juan Carlos “El Topo” Pintera – Benjamin Bratt
Vanessa – Lela Loren

Camera (color, widescreen), Dana Gonzales; editor, Jonathan Chibnall; music, Antonio Pinto; production designer, Vincent Reynaud; art director, Joe Lemmon; set decorator, Kristen Bicksler; costume designer, Kimberly Adams-Galligan; sound (Dolby Digital/Datasat), Steve Aaron; supervising sound editors, Kami Asgar, Benjamin L. Cook; re-recording mixers, Kevin O’Connell, Daniel Leahy; special effects coordinator, Joe Pancake; visual effects supervisor, Michael D. Leone; visual effects, Lion Visual Effects; stunt coordinator, Tim Trella; assistant director, Walter Gasparovic; casting, Mary Vernieu, Lindsay Graham. Reviewed at Aidikoff screening room, Beverly Hills, Feb. 15, 2013. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 112 MIN.
(English, Spanish dialogue)

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