Strong performances by Cheadle, Pearce lift fast-paced 'Traitor'
Declaring jihad on inane summer movies, "Traitor'' goes behind the lines of the war on terror and yields a surprising amount of intelligence.
Whether that’s enough to lure audiences to yet another left-leaning tale about America’s involvement in the Middle East remains to be seen, but if ever one of these flicks deserved your attention, it’s this one. Not because it has anything new to say, but because of yet another riveting performance by Don Cheadle.
Playing a character whose loyalties are almost as hard to pin down as Osama bin Laden (at least initially), Cheadle puts a very human face on an American Muslim torn between doing what’s righteous and what’s right.
Should his Samir Horn, a former U.S. Army Ranger turned underground arms dealer, stay true to his faith, which holds life sacred, or should he bend to the prevailing ideology advocating the death of innocents as a means to a greater end.
It’s a fascinating dilemma that twists him – and you – into tight ethical knots, before unraveling in a predictable third act that – true to Hollywood dogma – eschews any semblance of moral ambiguity.
Writer-director Jeffrey Nachmanoff ("The Day After Tomorrow'') wouldn’t have it any other way, fully indulging his love of explosives, mayhem and shadowy, one-dimensional characters counted upon to do the dumbest thing possible when you most expect it.
Clearly, he knows nothing about hiding his cards, forcing Cheadle to work overtime trying to inject Samir with the slightest hint of mystery.
You sense almost from the start, when he is seen selling detonators to Arab terrorists that his Samir is not what he seems. Worse, you know exactly what he’s up to, thus seriously diluting the film’s "big'' third-act twist.
"Traitor'' is so rapidly paced, though, there’s nary a second to dwell on its shortcomings until it’s over. It consistently holds you in its grip, as Samir hopscotches the globe trying to outrun his conscience and a couple of relentless FBI agents (compellingly played by Guy Pearce and Neal McDonough) who want to question him about suspected terrorist attacks in Yemen, London and Nice.
The screenplay, based on a story idea credited to comedian Steve Martin, also appealingly flaunts an air of intellect in effectively dramatizing the roots and impetus of terrorism (hint: it’s not because they hate us for our freedom), while also presenting a convincing argument that the best way to end the threat is through good ol’ fashion police work, especially on the parts of the FBI and the CIA.
If only we could get the two bitter rivals to work together, which underscores a central theme in "Traitor'': the lack of communication among everyone from federal agencies to Jews and Muslims.
"Traitor'' even uncovers rifts within the Islamic faith itself through a tenuous friendship between Samir and a surprisingly sympathetic terrorist leader superbly played by Said Taghmaqui ("The Kite Runner''). Their conversations, especially their rational debates on the interpretations of the Koran, are rich and thought provoking.
Making it all the more disappointing when "Traitor'' ultimately turns Benedict Arnold on its audience by letting brawn win out over brains in service of an ending meant to make Americans, especially those who do not believe in Allah, feel good about themselves.
Don’t want to offend anyone, you know, except maybe Muslims, the new villain de jour in La La Land. It’s almost enough to make you shift allegiances with the picture, and you would if not for the sensational work by Cheadle and Pearce.
Each brings genuine thrills – and empathy – to their character’s high-stakes game of cat and mouse, as the the passive son of a southern American preacher and the son of a murdered Sudanese cleric discover they have more in common than they realize.
"Traitor'' may not solve all the world’s problems, but for two exciting hours it sure makes you forget all about yours.
The Patriot Ledger