3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for violence, brief profanity and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.29.08
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Espionage thrillers have become quite distressing.
Heinous terrorist acts aren't really all that new; all the way back in 1977, the film adaptation of Thomas Harris' Black Sunday was a nail- biting race to derail a plan to detonate an explosives-laden blimp hovering over the annual Super Bowl game.
|The quietly honorable Samir Horn (Don Cheadle, left) has trouble explaining|
his point of view, let alone his behavior, to a shadowy CIA contractor (Jeff
Daniels) who tends to favor ruthless "solutions" to any perceived problem.
Even so, the landscape has changed in these uneasy early years of the 21st century. Whereas previous fictitious plots — suggested, as they often were, by real-world events — generally involved lone crackpots, single assassins or at worst a small group of dedicated killers, today's politically charged action flicks often focus upon the legions of religiously brainwashed Islamic fanatics who've replaced skinheads and covert Nazis as the reflexive villains of choice.
And, let's face it, a plot to have 50 bomb-toting true believers detonate their explosives — while riding 50 buses filled with average folks taking random journeys across the great American heartland — feels a little too possible to be dismissed as sheer screenwriter's fantasy.
But writer/director Jeffrey Nachmanoff's Traitor takes awhile to get that far. In the meanwhile, we're given a fascinating character study of a former U.S. special-ops agent gone rogue: a man given quite persuasive substance thanks to another of star Don Cheadle's immaculately layered performances.
To say that Samir Horn (Cheadle) is complex would be the gravest of understatements; although devout enough to carefully unroll a carpet and pray even when in prison, Samir is introduced while on a mission in Yemen, as he supplies explosives to Islamic terrorists quite prepared to use them. And not just the explosives themselves, but the knowledge required to design foolproof bombs.
"I can prevent you from blowing yourselves up," he explains, somewhat mordantly adding, "unintentionally, anyway."
The quip does not go over well with Omar (Saïd Taghmaoui), an Islamic "patriot" who doesn't trust Samir for a second. His suspicions seem well-founded when their meeting is interrupted by local soldiers — the good guys — assisted by visiting counter-terrorism FBI agents Roy Clayton (Guy Pearce) and Max Archer (Neal McDonough).
As it happens, Clayton and Archer have been trailing Samir for quite some time; Clayton believes their quarry opportunistic but not a radical ... in other words, somebody who could be "turned" toward U.S. interests. Samir surprises them; even the threat of an almost certain death in a Yemeni prison does not bring a flicker to the almost sadly analytical gaze he turns on Clayton.
If anything, the offer seems to insult him, and further harden the as-yet-undisclosed resolve that dictates his actions.