A satisfyingly little thriller in danger of getting lost at the multiplex, Traitor works better if you haven’t seen the TV spots. Don Cheadle portrays Samir Horn, a U.S. Army Special Forces soldier and a devout Muslim of Sudanese descent.
As the film begins, he’s working with Arab terrorists, teaching them how to use the explosive detonators they’ve just bought from him. (In one of the movie’s few notes of grim humor, he says, “You wouldn’t want to blow yourselves up – unintentionally, that is.”) For the first hour, the movie keeps you in suspense as to whether Samir has crossed over and actually become a terrorist or is infiltrating them so that he can take down their organization. The TV ads give that away, unfortunately. Don’t worry, though. The plot still packs quite a few twists after that.
As opposed to last year’s fatally talky Lions for Lambs and Rendition, this film about counterterrorism concentrates on functioning as a lowbrow espionage thriller, with its ideas serving as flavoring. It doesn’t always work as it should – the two FBI agents on Samir’s trail across the globe are too conveniently divided into a knee-jerk meathead named Archer (Neal McDonough) and an Arabic-speaking Southern Baptist named Clayton (Guy Pearce), who makes the effort to understand the terrorists’ motivations. When Archer recommends racial profiling, Clayton dutifully points out that it won’t work because only 20 percent of the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims are Arabs. Despite those occasional stumbles, this movie conveys its ideas more effectively because they’re packaged into an easily digestible genre piece.
Because of the story structure, Cheadle has to play close to the vest, so he isn’t his usual brilliant self until the end of the movie. Fortunately, the supporting roles are cast well. Bollywood star Aly Khan makes a memorable impression as Farid, a slick terrorist higher-up who scandalizes Samir by serving him wine. (“That is haram,” says Samir. “Actually, it’s a Grand Crú ’95,” is Farid’s smooth response.) Even better is Saïd Taghmaoui as Omar, a jihadi who becomes Samir’s most loyal friend. As opposed to the exchanges between the FBI agents, the conversations between Omar and Samir are subtle and riveting as Samir plays on Omar’s conflicted feelings about his terrorist activities. A sharp-featured 35-year-old Moroccan-French actor, Taghmaoui has popped up in Vantage Point and The Kite Runner and delivered an unforgettably sorrowful monologue as an Iraqi soldier in the 1999 film Three Kings. Here he matches Cheadle stride for stride, and any actor who can do that has reason to be proud.
Writer-director Jeffrey Nachmanoff delivers some crackling set pieces like the low-tech prison break early in the film that busts Samir out of a jail in Yemen and the showdown between Samir and Clayton in the tunnels underneath a Chicago housing project. The plot unspools with speed and ingenuity, thanks to credited storywriter Steve Martin (yes, that one). How do you stop 30 suicide bombers in a single stroke when they’re fanned out across the United States? This movie comes up with a nifty solution. Better still, it quotes the Qu’ran extensively to counter the teachings of radical Islam, something that hasn’t been done enough. Traitor won’t win the war on terror, but it’s a smart thriller with a conscience and enough chops to compel your attention.
Starring Don Cheadle and Saïd Taghmaoui.
Written and directed by Jeffrey Nachmanoff.