“Snitch” is today’s slightly shocking beginning to what is going to be a two-month Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson festival in Buffalo. On March 4, he is scheduled to come to the First Niagara Center with John Cena and others for a segment of “Monday Night Raw.”

On March 28, his next big action hoo-ha – “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” opens nationwide. And of unusual interest to Buffalo filmgoers, his action comedy “Pain & Gain” with Mark Wahlberg opens April 24, directed by Michael Bay, no less. That’s the newest film written by Emmy-winning, Buffalo-raised screenwriter Chris Markus and his writing partner Stephen McFeeley (the “Narnia” and “Captain America” movies as well as the film “You Kill Me” that was set in a fictional Buffalo and filmed elsewhere).

The shock of “Snitch” is that it’s good – very good, for what it is, so much so that you might well ask, “Why, for pity’s sake, is actor Johnson back in the wrestling ring as ‘The Rock’ just when he’s truly proved himself in a film?”

“Snitch” radiates B-movie integrity. It no doubt sounds odd to be calling it a B-movie when it had a budget of $35 million, but such is modern Hollywood’s way of doing business that a movie for the action crowd starring a muscle mountain like Johnson and directed by former stuntman Ric Roman Waugh is equivalent to another movie era’s B-movie toss-off. In other words, it’s a way to occupy screens and make the megaplex go “ka-ching” briefly even though nobody need ever worry about it at Oscar time or 10-best lists or invitations by film culture academics for Johnson to lecture their classes on 21st century gender roles.

What’s hard to deny is that “Snitch” is a good movie in which Johnson, somewhat miraculously, gives a real performance as a father forced to set up a dangerous drug dealer for the feds when they refuse to commute his son’s “maximum minimum” 10-year sentence for drug dealing (in other words, the minimum sentence the law provides for the quantity of drugs found in his possession). And even then Johnson never takes his shirt off or uses his muscles to showily throw some bad guy 10 feet into the air. He does a bit of shooting and a lot of fancy driving of a semi on the highway, but there’s just no getting around the fact that he’s doing some real acting in “Snitch” and he’s doing it credibly and sometimes even well.

It didn’t hurt that the cast of “Snitch” is full of real-deal actors – Susan Sarandon as an unyielding “dragon lady” U.S. attorney, Barry Pepper as her funky-looking numero uno undercover DEA agent, Melina Kanakaredes (where’s SHE been?) as his ex-wife and, of lesser renown, fine actor Jon Bernthal of “The Walking Dead” who plays an ex-con who helps him set up the drug dealers.

The story is loosely based on a true tale told on PBS’ “Frontline.” Johnson plays a guy who’s the last guy who ought to be in the cartel-busting business for the feds. He’s got a construction business successful enough to buy him a McMansion in the suburbs for his new wife and their adorable young daughter. He practices his putting in the office, says things on the phone like “let’s move some equity around” (he needs a couple of new trucks pronto) and is happy as can be in the backyard grilling hot dogs for neighbors.

It all comes crashing down when his idiot teen son accepts delivery of enough Ecstasy to keep the nightclubs of a small city touchy-feely for a couple of months. His best friend set him up to get himself a lighter sentence. All the kid had to do was refuse to accept delivery of the package his buddy had Skyped him about.

If he’d refused the package altogether that would have been the end of it. Even in accepting it, he’d have been all right if he hadn’t opened it – just waited for his friend to retrieve it, as he was supposedly going to. But no, the kid was so curious to know what was in it – and maybe, for the first time, sample Ecstasy – that he opens it.

Bam. That’s it. The feds are on him with their maximum minimum sentence they’ll only commute if he does what his buddy did – set someone else up. The kid just won’t do it. He’s no druggie or dealer and he’s no snitch or narc either. He’s just not that kind of kid.

That leaves a 10-year stretch awaiting him, which is why his frantic father does everything possible to trade his own abilities to set up some dealers for his son’s freedom.

It’s a good B-movie premise with some explicit hard swipes at intransigent federal laws and practices. The premise reminded me of fabled old Sam Fuller and Phil Karlson B-movie classics like Karlson’s “Phenix City Story,” and “Walking Tall” (Johnson starred in the remake) and Fuller’s “Underworld U.S.A.” Or, to bring things much closer to home, James Caan’s “Hide in Plain Sight” (which was based on stories by then-reporter Lee Coppola that first appeared in The Buffalo News).

Even so, to be frank, who expects an ex-stuntman director like Waugh to do as much with it as he does – especially with all the extreme close-ups from his fine digital cinematographer Dana Gonzales?

There’s a fair amount of action in it but it’s hardly action-packed. It’s more human than that and credibly acted by people caught up in political ambition (Sarandon) and exasperation imposed by a cruel legal apparatus.

With so much good movie attention coming Johnson’s way, you have to wonder why on earth he’d want to continue being the Rock again inside the ring.

It’s tempting to speculate that it’s money by the ton but I doubt it. I think the outsized, flamboyant absurdity of ring performance must be a relief, in a way, from a movie like this, where the camera comes an inch away from his face during intense scenes to show exactly how good an actor he’s become.

He passed the test well. I’ll bet short and remunerative reacquaintances with the world in “Rock” disguise are practically vacations.


3 stars

Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Susan Sarandon, Barry Pepper, Jon Bernthal, Melina Kanakaredes

Director: Ric Roman Waugh

Running time: 122 minutes

Rating: PG-13 for drugs, language, violence and action.

The Lowdown: A father makes a deal to work for the feds to reduce his son’s “maximum minimum” 10-year drug sentence.