Dir: Jeffrey Nachmanoff. US. 2008. 113 mins.
Just as the war on terror has forced lumbering, outdated government agencies to adapt, sometimes awkwardly, to a new kind of enemy, so too does the old-fashioned Hollywood thriller Traitor strain to confront a newfangled action-suspense vehicle with conventional storytelling techniques. A solid lead performance from Don Cheadle, playing an undercover American operative trying to stop an Islamist terrorist cell from executing its next attack within the US, isn't nearly enough to rescue a film that has studied too many recent international thrillers for inspiration.
Outside his participation in the ensemble Ocean's films and the Oscar-winning Traffic, Don Cheadle is regarded more as a respected actor (in films such as Hotel Rwanda) than a powerful box-office draw, so this Overture Films release needs to position itself as the intelligent alternative to late-summer action entries like Death Race and Babylon A.D. If reviews are sympathetic and enough adults decide to give it a try, Traitor could eke out decent commercial results, but the best bet is for ancillary markets.
Samir Horn (Cheadle), a Sudanese former US operative, goes undercover to infiltrate a group of Muslim terrorists led by Omar (Saïd Taghmaoui) which is planning a series of attacks against the West. Horn's only connection to the US intelligence community is a CIA officer named Carter (Jeff Daniels), and thus he draws the suspicion of FBI agents Roy Clayton (Guy Pearce) and Max Archer (Neal McDonough), who are unaware of his sting operation and want to bring him to justice.
A thriller about the moral complexities of the war on terror, Traitor is really a movie at war with itself. Writer-director Jeffrey Nachmanoff's international thriller references the fashionable you-are-there handheld camerawork, cosmopolitan worldliness and jet-setting locales of suspense films like Traffic, Syriana and the Jason Bourne series, but Traitor rarely shows much ingenuity on a basic narrative level. Though the film earnestly tries to portray its terrorist cell as a group of human beings rather than radical loonies, Nachmanoff (working from a story developed by Steve Martin and himself) tends to mistake political correctness and cultural sensitivity for compelling characterisations.
Also highlighting the film's uneasy balance between traditional espionage thriller and enlightened commentary, Traitor's dialogue is an incongruous mixture of tough-guy bravado, intelligence-agency tech-speak and on-the-nose declarations about the war on terror's human toll. Since Traitor can't reconcile its two halves, both suffer: the action and suspense sequences rarely approach pulse-pounding levels, while Samir Horn's inner struggle between his Muslim beliefs and the reprehensible acts he must commit in the name of catching the 'bad guys' plays out like so many undercover-protagonist plots before it.
As the film's moral centre, Cheadle is predictably solid, although the character isn't layered enough to offer many memorable moments. Sporting an impressive Southern accent, Australian actor Guy Pearce does good work as the type of FBI agent the audience might initially suspect of racism but who emerges as a far more interesting lawman than that. And as he did in this spring's Vantage Point, Saïd Taghmaoui plays an engaging terrorist without resorting to cliches. One longs to see him in a major American film where he's not involved with good and evil, although his role in the forthcoming G.I. Joe doesn't seem likely to reverse that trend.
Hyde Park Entertainment
(story by Steve Martin and Jeffrey Nachmanoff)
J. Michael Muro