True Religion

'Traitor' fails as a politically conscious film, but works well as a suspenseful thriller

It's strange that Christians and Muslims don't get along better. They both think there's only one god, that this god is from somewhere in the Middle East, and that he told a guy named Abraham to kill his son and then was all, "Just kidding!"

So I think that some of the problems between Christians and Muslims don't come from their religions, but rather from the fact that they keep shooting and bombing each other. This is the topic of Traitor, which has a lot of pretentions to political commentary, but is really just a gripping, twisty thriller with some embarrassing exposition, a few obvious moments and some satisfying surprises.

The story starts in North Africa, where a young boy witnesses his father being killed by a car bomb. It then jumps ahead many years, to the point when the young boy has had the good fortune to grow up and be Don Cheadle, or at least Don Cheadle playing Samir Horn, a former Army explosives specialist and current bomb-maker for some people who've confused their devotion to Islam with the need to blow stuff up.

Samir, too, is a devout Muslim, but there's some question as to whether he's really down with the whole nail-bombs crowd. So, while he sits in a Yemeni prison, charming terrorist Omar (Saïd Taghmaoui) waits for Samir to prove himself. Samir does so in the one scene missing from most modern-day thrillers: a Yemeni kung-fu prison-yard sequence. You won't see that in The Bourne Lactation.

After Samir verifies his spirituality by sharing his food with the less fortunate and beating the bloody snot out of some stock characters, he and Omar join forces to become a sort of fundamentalist/terrorist A-Team.

Meanwhile, back at FBI headquarters, Good Agent Roy Clayton (Guy Pearce) and Bad Agent Max Archer (Neal McDonough) have a conversation that goes something like this:

Bad Agent: Muslims sure are evil.

Good Agent: Here's a long anecdote from my childhood about Christians being evil, and, also, Christians being good.

Bad Agent: I guess things are more complex than I thought.

Good Agent: Did you notice how I both commented on religious violence and also gave my backstory? Did you notice that? Did you?

Bad Agent: Yeah. That was cool.

Good Agent Roy Clayton gives a series of lectures throughout the film designed to instruct the audience about the many ways in which Muslims can be upstanding citizens. But when the film isn't simplistically saying that Muslims can be decent people, it does a halfway decent job of showing a wide variety of Muslim characters, from the violent terrorists who give the film its thrills to ordinary family people, workers for peace, students, mothers, shopkeepers and boisterous teenagers.

The fact that Cheadle, who's the central character, is a devout Muslim is also unusual; I can't think of another mainstream film whose protagonist is Islamic, and it's refreshing to see a religious person portrayed with some degree of complexity and sympathy.

Mostly, though, when the film tries to be politically conscious, it becomes artificial and obvious, so its central charm is in the suspense story. Most of that is well-told, but it includes, on top of stock characters like Good Agent and Bad Agent, one of the most egregious plot points that films like this can have: One of the characters goes undercover to infiltrate a terrorist group. However, there is only one person who knows that this person hasn't actually joined the terrorists. I wonder if that one agent will survive to the end of the film? I'm sure his odds are good. Really, what could happen to him? And it makes perfect sense to have no record of who's working for the National Security Agency and who's really a terrorist. Those things just have a way of sorting themselves out.

Other than that, the film's thriller aspects are reasonably well-assembled. The final twist is delicious, if a little stupid, and the cinematography, by J. Michael Muro, is perfectly pitched, with claustrophobic but informative shots zipping down Moroccan streets and through Chicago projects. His sense of lighting is impeccable, casting a neat yellow tint on everything in the sun-drenched Yemeni desert, and a gooey gray haze over America's inner cities.

The film is written and directed by Jeffrey Nachmanoff, who wrote The Day After Tomorrow, which may be the worst script of the last 10 years. Traitor is considerably better, though it still has its clumsy moments. Far stranger than Nachmanoff's improvement here is that his co-writer is Steve Martin, the Steve Martin, with the bunny ears and the arrow through his head and the wildness, and, yes, the craziness.

None of that is on display here, luckily, although Traitor does not offer the world's most sophisticated story, either. Where it works for action and excitement, however, it works well.

Cheadle is, as always, excellent. So is Taghmaoui (The Kite Runner, I Heart Huckabees, Three Kings), who's one of the finest actors working today. Not so great is Guy Pearce, but he has to deal with the worst dialogue, so he can't really be blamed; it's hard to give a good performance when you're reading a speech that sounds like it was written by some ninth-graders for Wilmington Junior High School's Ethnic Diversity Day event.

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