Virtue defeats talent in Traitor.
Don Cheadle stars as Samir Horn, a righteous Muslim connected to Islamic extremists who are plotting to blow up scores of buses across America simultaneously. The movie, which opens tomorrow, appears designed to test prejudice levels rather than elevate threat levels.
Writer-director Jeffrey Nachmanoff (he co-wrote The Day After Tomorrow) divides the film's storytelling between Samir and Roy Clayton (Guy Pearce), an FBI counterterrorist agent who starts tracking Samir after he lands in a Yemeni prison for selling detonators to an Islamic militant cell. Traitor is like an elaboration of that old hair-dye commercial, "does she or doesn't she?" only this time it's "does he or doesn't he harbor a secret anti-terrorist agenda?"
Cheadle's commitment to the material must be profound; he even co-produced the movie. His ability to suggest hidden pockets of thought and devotion beneath an alert, in-the-moment surface has never been stronger.
It's Cheadle's rich emotionality and sense of humor that have gone seriously missing in Traitor. The trick to making booby-trapped thrillers come alive is for the actors to play between the lines - and I do mean play. It's what Richard Burton and Claire Bloom did brilliantly in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, what Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer did in The Russia H ouse. I mention those players and those films - the two best John Le Carre adaptations - because they represent the kind of hall-of-fame ballpark Cheadle should be performing in.
Nachmanoff's script is intelligent and earnest (several cuts above The Day After Tomorrow) but it's painfully on-the-nose. Jeff Daniels brings wonderfully out-of-tune vibes to the role of a mysterious U.S. intelligence agent, but he isn't around often enough or long enough to give this film the hot-foot that it needs. Samir's friendship with the Islamic kamikaze Omar (Said Taghmaoui), no matter how fervently acted, plays like something out of The Idiot's Guide to Terrorist Fiction.
Pearce, as FBI man Clayton, and Neal McDonough as Clayton's partner, Max Archer, actually develop more enjoyable rapport than anyone else in the movie. They start out like an espionage version of a police team - they play good op, bad op, respectively - but the actors have the wit to emphasize that these two guys come together as good-humored competents in a world in which supposed good guys are often at each other's throats.
Of course, Cheadle and his collaborators on Traitor might argue that a ripped-from-the-headlines movie deserves to be judged on different grounds, such as the number of pertinent issues it crams into a relatively compact (under two hours) running time. Traitor does touch on the bloody reality behind euphemisms such as "collateral damage"; the hypocrisy of high-level Islamic militants who savor the decadent Western culture they aim to blow to smithereens; the insensitivity of Americans to the complexity of Islamic culture.
Costa-Gavras (Z, State of Siege) made political thrillers that are still considered great because they were as skillful dramatically as they were incisive politically. When a director can't fulfill his obligations to his genre, he doesn't win the confidence he needs to lead an audience into higher terrain. In Traitor, Nachmanoff flubs such obligatory scenes as the man on the run seeking a meeting with an old girlfriend. Samir hunches over on a park bench but stares at her so obviously he might as well be jumping up and down and screaming, "Here I am! It's me!"
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