HOLLYWOOD — “Traitor” is the kind of movie so many of us yearn to see: It’s intense and intelligent, has something to say without being pedantic and presents complicated issues without condescending.
It even boasts a solid cast, led by Don Cheadle (who is also a producer) and including Guy Pearce and Jeff Daniels.
So why does this film feel more than a bit off?
Writer-director Jeffrey Nachmanoff takes his tale of terrorism and espionage — based on idea from Steve Martin — and runs with it all over the world, from Sudan and Yemen to Chicago and Washington to London and Marseilles. And yet by the end, with its much-ballyhooed twist, the whole endeavor leaves you feeling more drained than enlightened.
Perhaps because “Traitor” aims to be equal parts explosive action picture and serious-minded character drama, it never completely hits the mark in either regard. As pure entertainment, it’s too dry; as a heady dissection of world affairs, it’s too shallow. But through Cheadle’s Samir Horn, “Traitor” does take the admirable step of trying to understand and explain the philosophy of Islamic extremism. The script from Nachmanoff, who previously wrote the weather-run-amok thriller “The Day After Tomorrow,” actually allows his characters to enter into discussions of what jihad means and who exactly is a terrorist.
Samir would seem to be one, based on his actions and associates: He’s a former U.S. special operations officer whose Muslim faith has led him down some violent paths. As a child in Sudan, he watched his father die in a car blast; after growing up in the Chicago projects and joining the military, he now finds himself selling bomb detonators to Yemenis. His motives and alliances are unclear from the start and remain so throughout the film, perhaps even to him.
It’s a bold move to be sure, maintaining this sort of moral ambiguity in a lead character — especially in a summer thriller. Cheadle is, of course, as smart and nuanced as ever, and it’s intriguing to see him play the role of a bad guy for once, or at least a flawed protagonist. But he might actually be too subtle for his own good; at times, you wish there were a little more oomph to the performance.
In a parallel plot line, Pearce co-stars as Roy Clayton, a low-key FBI agent with a smooth Southern drawl who is calmly trying to track Samir down, even as bombings around the world continue to create chaos and carnage. He and his partner, Agent Max Archer (Neal McDonough as thuggish bad-cop) initially find Samir in a Yemeni prison and interrogate him. Then they lose him again when he escapes with fellow inmate Omar (the quietly intimidating Said Taghmaoui), a Swiss-educated fundamentalist who believes just as firmly in his cause as Samir does in his religion — a dynamic they recognize in each other, which quickly binds them.
Daniels, meanwhile, has a few strong scenes as a CIA agent who knows more than he lets on to his government cronies.
And yet the cat-and-mouse game continues with Samir continuing to prove his elusiveness, even as Homeland Security steps up its screenings and alerts with the threat of a major attack planned for Thanksgiving Day in the United States. All of it certainly seems relevant, resonant, even plausible — but that doesn’t necessarily mean that anyone will want to watch it.
“Traitor,” an Overture Films release, is rated PG-13 for intense violent sequences, thematic material and brief language. Running time: 112 minutes. Two stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G — General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG — Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 — Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R — Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 — No one under 17 admitted.