So, I have to admit it. One of the main reasons I’m such a movie buff is my mom. Like me, she loves watching movies, preferably on a huge screen, with a tub of popcorn in her lap. In fact, it’s a holiday tradition at Thanksgiving for everyone to go to the movies together. I know that seems odd, but Thanksgiving—like Christmas—is actually a pretty big opening day at the movies. But the holidays aren’t the only time we hit the cinema. We accompany each other throughout the year, with or without the rest of the family in tow.
I’m sure many movie buffs can say the same thing, but it’s not the simple act of going to the movies with my mom that stands out in our relationship. It’s the movies we tend to see together. Yes, we do see the kinds of films you would expect a mother and son to see, like The Guilt Trip with Barbra Streisand and Seth Rogen, which we caught over the winter break. But more often than not, the films I see with my mom are action movies with loud explosions and high-speed car chases.
You see, my mom has “a thing” for The Rock. Not the Jerry Bruckheimer-Michael Bay prison break-in movie starring Nicholas Cage and Sean Connery (though we did see that one together), but pro-wrestler-turned-actor Dwayne Johnson. By “thing,” I mean that my mom will watch any movie Johnson is in. Any movie. My mom is not a wrestling fan. The fascination probably began when we took in a holiday family movie, most likely 2007’s The Game Plan, where The Rock plays a pro football player who suddenly finds out he’s a father and hilarity ensues.
This year’s mom and son “Rock” outing was Snitch, directed by stuntman-turned-director Ric Roman Waugh who also co-wrote the script. As far as Rock sightings go, this one could not have been better for my mom. Before the film started, we were treated to not one, not two, but three trailers for upcoming Rock films: G.I. Joe: Retaliation, Fast & Furious 6, and Pain & Gain. She was stoked before the film even started. On the other hand, I was preparing myself for I assumed would be yet another empty, explosion-filled action film where Johnson gets to strut his stuff by flexing, often, for the camera.
Unlike my mom, I have more of a take him or leave him relationship with Johnson. I never watched him wrestle. I took my kids to see the lighthearted The Game Plan and the painful The Tooth Fairy, but decided to skip the remake of Race to Witch Mountain and Journey 2: The Mysterious Island. As far as his action films go, I tend to find them either derivative and uninspired (Faster) or just outright laughable (The Scorpion King, Doom). But, I must admit that he does exude a certain amount of charm. He has a casual tongue in cheek nature to him that suits him well when he’s allowed to show his comedic side (The Rundown or any number of TV guest appearances and movie cameos). So, I’m always willing to give him a chance.
With Snitch, I’m glad I did. Because Snitch wasn’t a derivative action film. I’m not really sure it was an action film at all. The film has all of the ingredients for an action blockbuster: a heavyweight star, Mexican drug lords, local heavies, reformed cons; but chooses to rely on story and the relationships between the characters rather than one liners, car chases, and explosions. Waugh could have easily fallen back on his past experience as a stuntman (a career that includes Road House, Total Recall, The Crow, and Gone in Sixty Seconds among others), but instead chose to pace the film as a neo-noir drama. In the film, Johnson isn’t ex-military, special ops, or even a cop. He doesn’t even own a gun (in fact, he has to buy a shotgun for the big showdown, an act that actually seems to pain him). Rather, he’s just a guy who’s trying to run a construction company, while holding together his second marriage and maintaining a relationship with his son from the first. This premise follows the classic noir pattern: an average, ordinary person who is thrown into an unusual, extraordinary situation. Generally in noir films the protagonist is not just average, he’s painfully normal and even a little flawed. Johnson plays John Matthews (even the name is average; it may as well have been Joe Smith). He is estranged from his son, Jason, who doesn’t even use his father’s last name. He’s trying to keep his company going and has plans to expand it, even though the economy is not in his favor. He also has a beautiful new wife (a small part played by Nadine Velazquez, showing that Flight was not a one-off in her attempt to move from television to the big screen) and daughter, and he hopes to do a better job as a husband and father this time around.
Matthews’ son is the person responsible for the inciting incident by accepting a package of pills for a friend who has cut a deal and made Jason the fall guy. In order to get his son out of jail, Matthews agrees to work with the DA to bring down not only a few local dealers, but a major player in the Mexican drug cartel. As outrageous as the premise seems, the film is loosely based on actual events. But this is not the reason the audience is willing to go along with the premise. The reason we are willing to suspend our disbelief is because Johnson is able to sell the performance. We never see him shirtless and flexing. We never see him driving a car like he’s a professional stock car racer. In fact, we see him beaten up by some local street thugs, and the closest we get to a high-speed chase involves an eighteen-wheeler, which Johnson wrecks. There’s only one major shootout and it’s a far cry from the stock action films of stars like Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Willis, and—well—The Rock. Johnson gives Matthews a real humanity. There are no throwaway one liners, eyebrow arches, or smirks. We believe he’s a simple man with simple dreams.
The film works because we can see ourselves possibly in the same situation. Everything that happens is a series of stupid mistakes. Jason is not a drug dealer. He’s a young kid who’s planning to go to college. Matthews is not a “hero.” He’s a regular guy who will go to any lengths to protect his son. The film also works because the characters don’t live in a vacuum. We believe they inhabit the world of the film. We see Matthews’ employee and unwillingly accomplice, Daniel (Jon Bernthal), in his home and accept him as more than just a supporting player to move the plot along. We understand that DA Joanne Keeghan (Susan Sarandon) is primarily concerned with her political aspirations and that Matthews is just another cog in the machine. We are even given glimpses into the lives of the drug dealers at both the lowest level in Malik (Michael K. Williams) and the highest in El Topo (Benjamin Bratt), so that they are not simply caricatures but fully fleshed out characters.
Will Snitch live on to be a “classic”? Probably not, but it does show that Johnson can actually deliver drama and that Waugh knows how to build a story around that drama rather than giving us simply flashy style over substance. As for me, it will be another fond memory of movie going with my mother, which based on the previews, looks to be the year of The Rock.