It takes forever to get going, and it lollygags along even after that.

As a businessman scrambling to find a way to get his son's federal prison sentence dropped, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson has to play fear, tough love, pity and panic -- and he's a bit in over his head.

But that's the point of "Snitch," a straight-no-chaser thriller "inspired by a true story." The pacing is off, too many scenes lack dramatic punch and play like filler. But Johnson is pretty good at being a guy in over his head, sharing scenes with flinty pros such as Susan Sarandon, Benjamin Bratt and Barry Pepper.

It's a tale of a civilian who gets mixed up in the feds-vs.-Mexican drug cartels war, whose "mandatory minimum sentencing" has snared John Matthews' naive 18-year-old son. The prosecutor (Sarandon) is a hard case, readying a run for Congress. So John makes a deal -- he will get "an introduction" into that world through his construction-supply business. He will use his Jefferson City, Mo., trucks for transport, and they will nail big players from the cartel.

Co-writer/director Ric Roman Waugh is a stuntman turned director. But he wastes a staggering amount of time setting that scenario up, and even more time getting to the point where his no-digital stunt experience pays off. Some of that establishes that John is a fish out of water and shows us his learning curve. Mostly, though, that slow pacing robs the story of tension and suspense.


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What gives it juice is the supporting cast. Jon Bernthal (Shane in "The Walking Dead") is credibly wary as the ex-con John begs to get him in the door of the drug world. And the terrific Michael Kenneth Williams is the first dealer he meets, a guy who pulls a gun on him just to test him.

Waugh can be forgiven for giving these guys more scenes than are necessary. They're that good.

Pepper sports a Civil War-worthy goatee in his role as an undercover federal agent who frets over John's safety. Rafi Gavron is properly frightened as the boy who let a friend entrap him with a box full of pills and sets this saga in motion, though Waugh loses track of the kid for much of the movie. We need reminding of the stakes, the danger.

But I like the way Johnson, often shot in extreme close-ups, underplays this guy. And I like the way the script lets John's ineptitude and discomfort in this world create the humor, the way Waugh has some scenes set to music, no sound effects, the way he dispenses with the obligatory "I'm gonna need to head to the gun shop" scene and the way the man films a car and truck chase -- rending metal, shattered glass, none of that digital fuss and fakery.

"Snitch" isn't a great film. But after the run of brawling, over-the-top shoot-'em-ups / drive-'em-ups that have cluttered Johnson's résumé, it's good to see him try his hand at acting, even if he is as overmatched as the fellow he's playing.

'Dark Skies'

"Dark Skies," a new spooker starring Keri Russell opening this weekend, did not screen in advance for critics. A review will be posted online at www.mercurynews.com/movies when one becomes available.

'snitch'

* *

Rating: PG-13 (for violence)
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Susan Sarandon, Barry Pepper and Benjamin Bratt
Director: Ric Roman Waugh
Running time: 1 hour,
52 minutes