film review: TRAITOR

WARNING: This review contains spoilers—spoilers that are in the trailer, so they really should not be considered spoilers.
For years, Don Cheadle was one of the best actors in Hollywood who was unfortunately seldom given an opportunity to really shine. He was great in his recurring role on the television series Picket Fences, and he actually stole Denzel Washington’s thunder in Devil in a Blue Dress, but more often than not he wasn’t properly used, even in films directed by Steven Soderbergh, who began casting Cheadle regularly with Out of Sight. Cheadle finally broke out of his supporting character actor status and received the accolades he deserved with Hotel Rwanda and Talk to Me, both of which proved that he could carry a film as the leading man. His latest star turn, the political thriller Traitor, while being a solid film to showcase his talent, appears to be a serious push to establish Cheadle as a name brand actor.

Cheadle stars as Samir Horn, the son of an American mother and a Sudanese father, raised in a devout Muslim household. Decades after the brutal killing of his father, Samir is a globe-trotting loner who frequently seems to cross paths with known terrorists. When he is arrested in Yemen with members of a terror cell, and thrown into a prison, Samir’s fate appears to be sealed. But his devotion to his faith and his ability to kick ass catch the eye of Omar (Said Taghmaoui), a fellow Muslim and a member of a deadly terrorist organization. Omar and Samir become friends, and when a daring prison break springs Omar and his men, they bring Samir along, welcoming him into their organization. Meanwhile, FBI agent Roy Clayton (Guy Pearce), who is working to bring down Omar’s terrorist organization, becomes obsessed with Samir, who is more than he appears to be. Clayton, who was raised in a Baptist family, but has a vast knowledge of Islamic culture, doggedly pursues Samir, who he is convinced is the key to toppling the deadly terrorists that are planning a massive attack in the United States. As Clayton eventually discovers, Samir is an operative working for the CIA, but it is unclear where his present loyalties lie, and as members of his terror cell begin to suspect him of being a traitor, his life is soon in jeopardy.

One of problems with Traitor, for anyone who has seen the trailer, is that almost the entire story is pretty much revealed in 130 seconds. This leaves director Jeffrey Nachmanoff with the unenviable task of creating tension in a political thriller where nearly all of the secrets have been revealed to the public before the film’s release. Fortunately, Nachmanoff, who wrote the screenplay based on a story by Steve Martin (yes, that Steve Martin), has a few tricks up his sleeve, and manages to deliver a third act climax that his genuinely tense.

Traitor attempts to be a complex film, and to its credit, it succeeds, at least some of the time. Nachmanoff’s script earns points for giving a sense of depth to the character of Omar, instead of having him as a one-dimensional monster like the rest of the terrorists in the film. The film introduces several suicide bombers, but only uses them as prop pieces, instead of examining who they are as people, and what led them to their mission. The backstory of the bombers is actually more intriguing than the rest of the film, and leaves you wishing that Traitor was as much about them as anything else. But can you image Hollywood trying to market a film like that?.

Nachmanoff has crafted a film that is good, but not great. Traitor is entertaining while it is on the screen, but doesn’t resonate much after you’ve left the theater. Cheadle does a great job, which comes as no surprise, but as with many of the films he’s been in up to this point, Traitor never quite rises to the challenge of meeting his talents as an actor. The same is true for the rest of the cast, especially Taghmaoui, who all give great performances in a film that is seldom as good as the acting that drives it. The result is decent film that seems better than it is, thanks to the work of its cast.

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