Just a few years ago, with flicks like Tooth Fairy and The Game Plan, it looked like Dwayne Johnson was headed for a career as a kid-friendly, loveable, tough guy with a heart of gold. Even last year’s PG-rated Journey 2: The Mysterious Island had him acting alongside High School Musical sweetie-pie Vanessa Hudgens.

Now comes Snitch, the debut big-budget feature from longtime stunt coordinator Ric Roman Waugh, and Johnson makes it very clear that this is where he needs to be– kicking ass and making life generally difficult for anyone on the wrong side of the law.

What could have been just another forgettable mess of brute force and meathead justice, though, instead becomes a downright good film. And it’s due in large part to Johnson’s winning performance.

Here he’s John Matthews, well-to-do owner of a trucking company. When his estranged son is arrested in a sting operation for having a whole bunch of ecstasy that his friend sloughed off on him, John steps up to find a way to clear his son’s name. Turns out, it’s not that easy. Due to new mandatory minimum sentencing, Matthews’s son Jason (Rafi Gavron) is looking down the barrel of a ten-year sentence.

The only solution is for Matthews to make a deal with U.S. Attorney Joanne Keeghan (Susan Sarandon); if he can hook a big fish, his son will go free.

What follows is an often-tense, always-entertaining story of infiltration into the world of drug trafficking. What starts as a failed street corner deal quickly evolves into Matthews transporting millions to Mexico for kingpin Juan Carlos Pintera (Benjamin Bratt), and before long Matthews is in for more than he ever could have bargained for.

Waugh keeps the audience on edge with a tautly-shot thriller that never fails the believability test. Snitch is gritty, raw, and tackles the country’s drug epidemic head-on. There’s no Hollywood-izing here– people get hurt, the best-laid plans get all fouled up, and we see real fear in Matthews’ eyes, despite his hulking frame.

The script, co-written by Waugh and Justin Haythe (Revolutionary Road), does occasionally drift into trite-ville, but by and large it feels honest, and it never pulls any punches.

The best thing going for Snitch, though, is Johnson himself. Turning in the finest performance of his career, he gives Matthews a sense of humanity, which deftly keeps this whole escapade from going south.

No one would have blamed him (or Waugh, for that matter) if he had uttered a “yippee-kay-ay” anywhere along the way and hammed things up for comedic effect, but he chose not to. The result is a rock-solid flick that demonstrates definitively that Johnson has what it takes to carry a film on his back (without fairy wings).

4/5 stars