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'Snitch,' starring Dwayne Johnson, is capably noirish ★★★

Large, in charge and nobody's little Margie: Dwayne Johnson takes on the drug kingpins in "Snitch." Place your bets!

"Snitch" comes from a story told in a "Frontline" documentary about the post-Reagan-era injustice of mandatory minimum sentencing for first-time, nonviolent offenders. In real life, James Settembrino was the father of an 18-year-old who received a 10-year sentence for the possession and sale of LSD. The kid claims he was set up by a government informant; James Settembrino cooperated with prosecutors by attempting to ferret out information on other drug dealers, in exchange for a lighter sentence for his son.

"Snitch" owes little to what actually happened. Its fidelity, rather, is to the widespread outrage that an offender such as the teenage Settembrino could get rougher judicial treatment than the average rapist, for example. Starring an effectively contained Johnson in the role of a wholly fictionalized father, director Ric Roman Waugh's modest, efficient programmer weighs in at roughly 20 percent reality and 80 percent movie-ality, which is about average for a movie "inspired by true events."

Whatever. This one actually works. "Snitch" is shrewd in its balancing of our sympathies. Set in Missouri but shot in Shreveport, La., the movie (co-written by Waugh, with Justin Haythe) gets right to it, with the Drug Enforcement Administration sting operation and arrest of 18-year-old Jason (Rafi Gavron), whose drug-dealer friend strong-arms him into accepting a shipment of a big box of Ecstasy. The feds are ready and waiting, and Jason lands in the clink. (The script implies that Jason's misjudgment is the result of acting-out over his parents' divorce.)

But dad is ready for high-risk solutions. Johnson, formerly The Rock but now fully on his way to being known as Formerly The Rock, plays John Matthews, a construction manager who convinces a conniving U.S. attorney running for Congress (Susan Sarandon) to allow him to infiltrate a drug cartel run by Mr. Big (Benjamin Bratt) in exchange for his son's freedom.

The drug lord's middlemen include Malik, played with stony disdain by Michael Kenneth Williams. Barry Pepper, always welcome, tips around the edges of the very full narrative as John's police contact, a man with a beard like Rip Van Winkle's and with second thoughts about sending a private citizen into harm's way.

That'd be enough for most films, but "Snitch" benefits from an additional key supporting character, an ex-con working for John, played by Jon Bernthal (of "The Walking Dead"). Bernthal's terrific in the part of a family man dragged back into the life he thought he'd left behind. The movie becomes patently silly in its final lap and a climactic action scene featuring Johnson driving a jack-knifing semitrailer while shotgunning drug lords. I don't recall that part being in "Frontline." Even so, director Waugh (who came up as a stuntman) delivers higher-grade obviousness than many movies offer.

Mainly, "Snitch" has a way of keeping you guessing about the next turn in its story, and a way of keeping Johnson's character compellingly at the mercy of others. There's a fair amount of violence, but most of it is handled crisply and without "attaboy!" relish. The junkyards, crack houses and mean nocturnal streets lend the story a vaguely fatalistic air recalling B-movie noirs of the late 1940s and '50s. It's an entertaining picture — pulp, coming from a place of righteous indignation.

mjphillips@tribune.com

'Snitch' -- 3 stars
MPAA rating:
PG-13 (for drug content and sequences of violence)
Running time: 1:56
Opens:
Friday

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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