By Eric Henderson

Dwayne (née The Rock) Johnson is a bigger rig than the 18-wheeler he pilots during the tenses moments of the new action-drama Snitch, but the movie asks you to believe that he can’t handle a couple small-time drug dealers without ending up face down on the pavement.

So much for credibility, but otherwise Johnson’s bid for greater respectability is an accessible, focused piece of pop social advocacy.

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Lifts its basic premise from a Frontline segment, Snitch casts Johnson as John Matthews, a construction business owner and second-family man whose teenage son from a previous relationship ends up fingered by the DEA after he allows his friend to deliver a package containing two throw pillows’ worth of MDMA to his house.

Because the amount constitutes conspiracy to distribute, and because the minimum sentencing guidelines for that particular charge are no less than 10 years in prison even on a first offense, the feds are depicted using that as a bargaining chip to encourage offenders to set up other distributors (or, as the movie suggests, patsies) in order to greatly reduce their own sentences.

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Matthews’ son Jason refuses to do to anyone else what his own friend did to him, and so Johnson takes it upon himself to hunt down a dealer himself in order to appease a particularly take-no-prisoners attorney general (played without pity by Susan Sarandon).

So far, so good. But no sooner does he rope in the assistance of one of his employees than he ends up putting everyone’s family in jeopardy, especially when their attempted entrapment winds up impressing a drug cartel boss, who wants Matthews to drive his profits back to Mexico.

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Director Ric Roman  Waugh keeps the proceedings down to a slow simmer for much longer than you’d expect from a movie with this as a one-sheet, but eventually doesn’t trust audiences to respond to the frying pan without being thrown into the fire. Though it makes for some decent action, the climactic freeway gunplay end up having the unintended effect of making the unjust system that Frontline segment seem like a really awesome way to set up explosive tests of character.

Eric Henderson