Saturday, February 23, 2013
“Snitch” – True events are boring without drug kingpins.
1. Dwayne Johnson, better known as The Rock, is not a good actor. I know this is the least surprising statement of the year, but it’s never been so obvious as it is in this film. That’s not to say he wasn’t trying hard, because it was obvious that he was doing the best he could. It’s just that his best is slightly worse than Keanu Reeves reciting Shakespeare.
2. The United States’ war on drugs has been a monumental failure; this movie shining a spotlight on one of its worst components, that being those convicted for the first time of dealing drugs get a mandatory minimum sentence of ten years in prison with the catch that they can get it reduced if they cooperate with law enforcement to help catch other drug dealers. Gee, what could possibly go wrong there?
Snitch is “inspired by true events” (the marketing tagline for this film), which means a little more than it usually does with movies. Back in 1999, PBS’s Frontline aired a story called “Snitch” in which they reported on the manipulation of defendants facing these harsh penalties. One of the cases they detailed was about an 18 year-old boy, Joey Settembrino, who was arrested for selling drugs, though it appears as if the whole thing was a setup by an earlier arrestee who was cooperating to reduce his sentence, and that Joey was not a drug dealer (read this for the details http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/snitch/cases/joeydad.html). When the cops tried to get Joey to work with them, he said that he didn’t know any drug dealers and didn’t want to set-up other people. The authorities then turned to his father, James, and said if he helped them they would reduce his son’s sentence. James agreed, but ultimately failed and it’s not clear if his son’s sentence was ever reduced. The film takes this story and, in true Hollywood fashion, changes a few things.
First, they have the father (Johnson) approach the cops, volunteering to help them take down drug dealers. Then, they embellish the task to be dad taking down a Mexican cartel leader. Finally, they change the ending because there’s no way this movie ends with dad simply failing and watching his son languish in prison. Obviously, the original story would have a been letdown, but the writer (Ric Roman Waugh, also director) just couldn’t help himself, adding an unrealistic story that actually distracts from the real story and allows for a loud, obnoxious, bullet-riddled climax that dumb moviegoers will think happened in real life. Because…you know, inspired by true events.
I’m not saying the changes are necessarily a bad thing, but it is really disingenuous to capitalize on the true events phrase and not even have the decency to put something at the end of the film talking about the case that was the inspiration. From a sheer entertainment value, the changes are good and the climax fits the build-up of the film quite well. However, there were a couple of plot holes that made no sense and made the plot even harder to accept as being real. For starters, the set-up of Jason seemed really weak and any decent attorney would have been able to prove entrapment and have the case dismissed. Maybe the actual event really was this simple, but it’s a really hard pill to swallow. But the bigger hole involves an employee of dad’s named Daniel (Jon Bernthal, a.k.a. Shane from The Walking Dead), a twice-convicted drug felon who is trying to clean up his act and provide for his family. For some reason, dad never tells the authorities about him (at least that we see), nor does he tell Daniel about the sting until he’s forced to. For a guy who cares so much about his son, he sure seems to give little thought to ruining someone else’s life and family. In fact, the movie comes dangerously close to forcing you to root for Daniel more than dad.
Compounding the trouble of accepting the realism is Johnson himself. We’re supposed to believe he’s the underdog, even being forced to watch him get beat up by a bunch of thugs early in his quest to locate a dealer. This scene was lifted straight out of The Next Three Days, but it was much easier to believe an out-of-shape Russell Crowe getting his ass kicked than The Rock being overpowered by a dude half his size. This scene would have much better (and closer to what the real father experienced) if the dudes had just denied him, or even pulled a gun on him telling him to get his yuppie-ass out of their neighborhood. Or something to that effect.
If the movie accomplishes anything, it brings to light how insane the war on drugs has gotten. As I mentioned earlier, the lawmakers have actually created a situation where the real and more dangerous drug dealers are incentivized to call anybody a drug dealer in order to have their sentences reduced. And in the cases described in that Frontline report, the police appear more concerned with making arrests than making sure they are arresting actual drug dealers. Although, it wouldn’t be at all surprising if it turned out that the Drug Enforcement Agency had a hand in this film’s making, turning a scathing indictment of a 40-year failed drug war and asinine punishments into a propaganda piece to convince people that we can win the war if people would just sacrifice their livelihoods, risk their lives and their families’ lives, in order to capture drug lords who are no more dangerous than Benjamin Bratt. Then, you too could be the inspiration for a movie in which there is a happy ending instead of you dying in an ill-conceived plot to place untrained civilians into violent and deadly situations.
Rating: Ask for three dollars back. Even with the embellishment, it provides some insight into an important topic while delivering a competent film.