"Traitor": Attempt at depth in terrorist genre sputters
Movie review: "Traitor" | Jeffrey Nachmanoff's "Traitor" trods some interesting terrorist turf with its devout Muslim protagonist but tends to falter when it's overly cautious.
Seattle Times staff reporter
"Traitor," with Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, Jeff Daniels, Neal McDonough and Saïd Taghmaoui. Directed and written by Jeffrey Nachmanoff. 114 minutes. Rated PG-13 for intense violent sequences, thematic material and brief language. Several theaters.
I'd like to be sitting in back of a theater to watch the reaction of a crowd suckered into "Traitor" by the TV ad's claim that it's an action thriller like the "Bourne" movies.
"Uhhh, how come there's so much prayin' to Allah and not much fightin'?"
Not even close to a "Bourne" flick, it's more like a "Mohammed Brasco," about a devout Muslim demolitions expert who goes deep under cover to infiltrate a terrorist group. If there isn't already a cultural suspense genre, maybe this'll start it.
Don Cheadle ("Hotel Rwanda," "Crash") plays a Sudanese-born former U.S. Special Forces soldier named Samir Horn who has a talent for making things go boom. Caught making a deal with terrorists, he's thrown in a Yemeni prison where two things happen: He's interrogated by enlightened FBI agent Roy Clayton (Guy Pearce) and his old school smack-'em-around partner, Archer (Neal McDonough); and he becomes fast friends with a terrorist named Omar (Saïd Taghmaoui), who helps him escape. (Omar would be the Al Pacino in "Mohammed Brasco.")
If "Traitor" is like a "Bourne" movie in any respect at all, it's the globe-trotting, as the cat-and-mouse game between Horn and Clayton takes them to locations around the world. Gradually proving his way into the terrorist group through different bombings that all seem to have some kind of hitch in them, Horn is really working for a CIA contractor (Jeff Daniels) aiming for the terrorist bigwig before a major symbolic attack in the U.S. heartland.
As the first big American blockbuster movie I can think of with a devout Muslim hero, it may take an adjustment for some, but that's not what makes "Traitor" difficult. Filmmakers seem to err on the side of overcautiousness whenever it comes to depicting Middle Eastern bad guys — and hey, I remember covering a protest for 1998's "The Seige" by people who hadn't even seen it. "Traitor" is a much smarter, nervier and more complex movie, but it's still too by-the-numbers and didactic. For instance, Agent Clayton is a Middle East expert and clearly the only one out of all worldwide law enforcement who seems able to find his own backside with both hands. Just too stock, especially in his awkward dialogue with the more ignorant Archer.
Not all Muslims are jihadist nutcases? Hey, thanks!
Some of the people who don't like Americans might actually have valid reasons? Oh, stop, you!
Having said that, it's still the Southern-accented Clayton whom I'd rather see in a spinoff, like Tommy Lee Jones' character in "The Fugitive," because the filmmakers barely give up enough about the tormented Horn to make you want to stick with him. It's not the character's ambiguity — the choices he makes to stay undercover, let alone a problematic final act that's supposed to be heroic. It's that he's too much of a ghost, and even a talent like Cheadle's can't bring out material that isn't there.
First-time director Jeffrey Nachmanoff, known for "The Day After Tomorrow" script, wrote the screenplay. Of all people, Steve Martin came up with the idea. It is neither wild nor crazy.
Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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