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Dustin Putman

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Traitor  (2008)
2 Stars
Directed by Jeffrey Nachmanoff.
Cast: Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, Said Taghmaoui, Neal McDonough, Aly Khan, Archie Panjabi, Jeff Daniels, Raad Rawi, Hassam Ghancy, Mozhan Marno, Adeel Akhtar, Lorena Gale.
2008 – 114 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for violence, thematic material and brief language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, August 26, 2008.
"Traitor" is the umpteenth film in the last several years to address the War on Terror. If it is less a stifling current events lesson than 2007's "Lions for Lambs" and less condescendingly pat than 2007's "Rendition," then that only means that it is one step above full-blown mediocrity. Unfortunately, said step is more like a rivet. Written and directed by Jeffrey Nachmanoff, a screenwriter (2004's "The Day After Tomorrow") at the helm of his first feature, "Traitor" is bogged down by confused, contradictory ideas and a narrative that poses as a cat-and-mouse thriller even as it wants to be taken as more serious-minded adult fare. It occasionally works as both, but never at the same time, and the ending adds up to a patently obvious line of dialogue—"the fight is far from over"—that would be more suited for a cheesy comic book movie.

As a child living in Sudan, Samir Horn (Don Cheadle) was a first-hand witness to his father's untimely death in a car bombing. Thirty years later, he makes a living selling explosives—an illegal operation that gets him caught and sent to an unforgiving Yemen prison. Following a successful prison break, Samir is welcomed into fellow inmate Omar's (Said Taghmaoui) faction of Muslim extremists. As they cross the globe, ultimately ending up in the U.S. where Samir is to lead a countrywide terrorist attack, FBI agents Roy Clayton (Guy Pearce) and Max Archer (Neal McDonough) desperately try to track them down before it's too late.

It is difficult to speak in clear terms about "Traitor" because so much of the film relies on a key plot turn uncovered midway through. Without giving this twist away—or, for that matter, another twist that arrives in the third act—it should be said that the casting of a star of Don Cheadle's caliber serves only to make the central revelation instantly predictable. The construction of the screenplay by Jeffrey Nachmanoff is flawed in more ways than one, acting as a popcorn-munching suspenser when it should have gotten rid of all its audience-deceiving flourishes and concentrated on the root of the story being told. The tough questions the picture poses are relevant, most notably whether or not those responsible for the deaths of innocent people, no matter the reason, are really any better than those we see as terrorists, but the film backtracks in the third act and attempts to explain away and justify the seamier actions of the characters. The material is simply not strong enough to support these mixed messages.

Don Cheadle (2007's "Reign Over Me") is an intense actor with a string of fine performances under his belt, but he is miscast as Samir. This character, even after the cards have been dealt, is poorly developed—his history is lazily read out in a Michael Bay-style monologue, rather than learned through natural story progression and interactions—and stands at a distance from the viewer. More than that, and because of the purposefully obscured layout of the plot, this is a role that required an unknown actor who wouldn't bring with him any preconceived notions. As FBI agents hot on Samir's trail, Guy Pearce (2002's "The Time Machine") and Neal McDonough (2007's "I Know Who Killed Me") are saddled with an obligatory, even gimmicky, subplot and one-note authority figure characterizations. Archie Panjabi (2007's "A Mighty Heart") shows promise as Samir's in-the-dark, Chicago-based girlfriend Chandra, but nothing is really done with her shortly after she's introduced.

"Traitor" is memorably lensed with appropriate grittiness across multiple continents by cinematographer J. Michael Muro (2007's "Rush Hour 3"), and the film keeps one's attention with a premise intriguing enough to want to know how things turn out. Where all the various strands lead, though, is underwhelming, and director Jeffrey Nachmanoff's inability to shape them into a satisfying and cohesive whole is ultimately discouraging. By only partially broaching the film's underlying themes concerning terrorism, religion, and international relations, "Traitor" becomes little more than a disposable thriller in need of a sharper focus.
© 2008 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman