Directed by:Jeffrey Nachmanoff
How should we react when honorable people do bad things in defense of the common good? This briskly entertaining film poses that question in a far more compelling manner than The Dark Knight, this summer’s runaway box-office success. It’s 38 minutes shorter and tens of millions less expensive than that recent Batman epic, but writer/director Jeffery Nachmanoff and the always intriguing Don Cheadle, (Devil In a Blue Dress, Hotel Rwanda, Ocean’s 11, 12 & 13) take a story by Steve Martin, (yes, that Steve Martin) and build a case for re-examining the argument that ends justify the means. Before it wanders off into an asinine ending unworthy of what’s preceded it, Traitor entertains while provoking some very interesting ideas. Not bad for an espionage thriller….
Cheadle plays Samir Horn, whose Sudanese father’s assassination the impressionable boy observes when still a child. Raised thereafter in the U.S. by his Muslim mother, Samir joins the U.S. Special Forces after college and manages to take both his Islamic faith and service to his country with equal seriousness. When the film opens, he’s selling sophisticated explosives to Islamic terrorists in Yemen - - has he been seduced by the fanatical elements of his faith, or is he deeply undercover?
As Samir becomes increasingly enmeshed in the shadow world of Islamic terrorism, the F.B.I and C.I.A. (crisply represented by Hollywood pros Guy Pearce, Jeff Daniels and the always interesting Neal McDonough) track Samir’s violent movements without sharing with each other their respective reasons for doing so. His identification with the grievances used by the terrorists to justify their activities provides an interesting conundrum for the audience; how can someone so inherently admirable be so dreadfully misguided?
But having established an excellent set-up, the writer/director steers his film the second half of his film into melodramatic mayhem with all the requisite elements of the genre - - double crosses, vengeful bureaucrats, increasingly irrational villains and a high body count. By the time the smoke clears, Samir is older, wiser…and ready for his next assignment.
Pearce and McDonough do a nice job of personifying America’s often schizophrenic approach to what’s justifiable in the name of national security and the movie’s technical credits (cinematography, set design, sound track etc.) exhibit thoroughgoing if unexceptional professionalism. But it’s Cheadle’s film and he carries it effortlessly, using his quiet mannerisms, soulful eyes and thoughtful expressions to convey his character’s decency and growing revulsion with those on both sides of conflict he’s become so intimately involved with. This actor ought to be a major star and deserves material more worthy of his talents.
The verdict? An interesting premise and solid character development placed at the service of an ultimately dopey storyline - - but the first half ranks as a solid thriller and as usual, Cheadle’s worth the price of admission. If you don’t want to see it now, keep it in mind a few months hence when it arrives at Netflix.
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