Traitor

Movie Information

The Story: A man who may or may not be a double agent aligns himself with a terrorist group who are out to make a devastating attack on the U.S. The Lowdown: Don Cheadle -- and to a lesser extent, Guy Pearce -- provide the main reason to see this overly complicated terrorist movie that compromises itself into the realm of pure silliness before it's over.
Score:

Genre: Action Drama
Director: Jeffrey Nachmanoff (Hollywood Palms)
Starring: Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, Saïd Taghmaoui, Neal McDonough, Aly Khan, Jeff Daniels
Rated: PG-13

Don Cheadle is apparently incapable of delivering a bad performance, but here it’s almost entirely up to him to keep pulling Traitor out of the soup. It’s a testament to just how very good he is that he manages to do just that—at least, up till the movie’s laugh-out-loud preposterous cop-out, and that’s something that no one could have made even marginally believable. Despite being unable to save the movie, Cheadle still makes it worthwhile.

That Traitor was destined to collapse under its own weight was probably inevitable. Despite an intriguing premise—a recognizable American movie star in the role of a man who might be a terrorist or at least in league with terrorists—the trailer itself reveals that there is more (or less) than meets the eye. In other words, any attempt at bamboozling the viewer into thinking that Cheadle’s character, Samir Horn, was anything other than a deep undercover good guy went out the window before the film hit the screen.

That it has a cop-out ending is perhaps just one more concession to audiences who have proven resistant to any and all films tackling the politics of a post-911 world (with the possible exception of Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantánamo Bay). Then again, maybe the final outburst of utterly childish preposterousness is simply due to the fact that director-writer Jeffrey Nachmanoff cowrote The Day After Tomorrow (2004) with Roland Emmerich. Even standing too close to Emmerich could be hazardous to your sense of reality. Collaborating with him might result in years of therapy.

Whatever the case, Traitor starts off as a good spy/terrorist thriller with Samir Horn falling in with Omar (Saïd Taghmaoui, The Kite Runner) while the two are in prison in Yemen. Through Omar, Samir becomes embroiled with a higher echelon terrorist, the pragmatic and obviously amoral Fareed (Aly Khan, A Mighty Heart). From here, it’s only a matter of Samir working his way up to the top of the terrorist group with plans to bring off a major strike against the U.S.

So far, the film is in good shape—and if prerelease publicity hadn’t given too much away, it might even have generated some significant tension about Samir’s loyalties. That the filmmaker and the performers believed there could be tension is evident in a scene where they reveal Samir is shocked to learn how many people were killed in a bombing he arranged. This is shrewdly played to give the audience the sense that he’s overcome with grief and guilt, while allowing him to pass off his visible discomfort as disappointment that the number of dead was so low to Fareed. The next scene where his mission and his C.I.A. connection is clarified was obviously meant to send the viewer in a new direction. Unfortunately, we were already there.

Even so the film continues to work as a fairly savvy thriller. The terrorist plan is chillingly detailed and thoroughly believable—and made just that much more unsettling because so few of the terrorists involved would ever be tagged by profiling. I won’t deny that it all becomes too absurdly convoluted, but the story line holds together—in part, because Cheadle and Guy Pearce, who plays an unusually complex FBI agent, help to hold it together. And then—before it even gets to the final twist—you realize that the film has written itself into a corner. It’s heading for a climax that would make the one in Syriana (2005) look pretty light, and the movie’s clearly not meant to be that heavy.

That the solution to this is laughably ridiculous and completely impossible is bad enough. That it’s handled badly—the execution of the payoff is less than weak—makes it even worse. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a film go straight to hell so quickly and so badly as this. A potentially very good film had already downgraded itself into a pretty good thriller, but by the end it becomes a bona fide fiasco that’s beyond recovering. Rated PG-13 for intense violent sequences, thematic material and brief language.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

8 thoughts on “Traitor

  1. Sean Williams

    That it has a cop-out ending is perhaps just one more concession to audiences who have proven resistant to any and all films tackling the politics of a post-911 world (with the possible exception of Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantánamo Bay).

    Curiously, the fantasy genre has taken precisely the opposite tack: authors get disproportionate praise for even the bluntest condemnation of the Bush Administration (c.f.: Palwick, Susan: Beautiful Stuff; Parks, Richard: Voices in an Empty Room).

  2. Ken Hanke

    Curiously, the fantasy genre has taken precisely the opposite tack: authors get disproportionate praise for even the bluntest condemnation of the Bush Administration (c.f.: Palwick, Susan: Beautiful Stuff; Parks, Richard: Voices in an Empty Room).

    I’m not sure you can fairly compare film and the written word in a case like this. Then again, I don’t know the works you’re citing. But the problem remains that not a single film to tackle the topic of Iraq has made a significant dent in the box office. I’ve seen this blamed on the films being anti-war or anti-Bush, but that seems unlikely to me as the reason — not in the least because not all quite meet that qualification. Perhaps it really is a case of people in general wanting escapism at this time in history.

    Then again, you mention the fantasy genre, which suggests to me that the literature you’re referencing is more allegorical in nature. That’s not something I’ve seen anyone much attempt in film…yet.

  3. Sean Williams

    That’s not something I’ve seen anyone much attempt in film…yet.

    Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith comes pretty close, although Lucas insists that Emperor Palpatine was based on Richard Nixon.

    I have this image of Mark Hamill removing Vader’s helmet and whispering in awe, “Wait…Deep Throat is Mark Felt?!”

  4. Ken Hanke

    Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith comes pretty close, although Lucas insists that Emperor Palpatine was based on Richard Nixon.

    Problem is that any Star Wars material is so hermetically sealed in its own mythology that it likely wouldn’t make a dent in viewer consciousness in any significant way. (After years of finding that large chunks of my generation’s so-called “Monster Kids” get their knickers in a twise if you so much as suggest that any of those classic horror movies might mean something, or that James Whale’s homosexuality in any way informs his quartet of horror pictures, I have no illusions left about the stubbornness of fandom.)

  5. Sean Williams

    My family got together this weekend to see a movie. My mother was going to drop by our local independent video store while grocery shopping, so I provided her with a list of films I thought we might enjoy — Big Fish, Sunshine, Bee Season, Breakfast on Pluto, Talk to Me, etc. (I assured her that all of these selections came with the highest recommendations of That Man from the Internet.)

    The clerk at the video store opined that all of the films I had listed were horrible and suggested instead a great movie with Don Cheadle.

    Suffice it to say that I disliked Traitor a good deal more than you did….

  6. Ken Hanke

    The clerk at the video store opined that all of the films I had listed were horrible and suggested instead a great movie with Don Cheadle.

    Who was this clerk? He needs a good talking to.

  7. jasondelaney

    Oh boy do I have a lot to say about this one. First off I’ll weigh in on why I don’t contribute to ANY box office sales on topical movies. Carefully woven subtext or allegory happens to be a pretty fine art, however, blatantly topical movies turn what could have been an interesting plot into something that could have been devised by tossing random newspaper articles at a flat surface and seeing how they play out. The potential for lazy obvious drama is extreme.

    Despite my aversion howerever, I was home sick one day, alone, bored, and having my most complex ambition be to just keep breathing until something shiny happened across my field of vision, when I noticed one of my roommates had a stack of rented movies. I figured “Don Cheadle and Guy Pierce? What the heck, it can’t be all bad.” I was right. This is the best film I have ever seen, but not for reasons you’d expect.

    Now let me set this up a bit. Ken rightfully suggests a lot of film’s go too far when asking you to suspend your disbelief, but I’ve learned to distrust my disbelief. (in fact we are estranged and I hear he’s living in Ohio with some new age hippies) The reason for this being I’ve carefully cultivated the childish naivete that most people are mostly good. This means that 51% of people are NOT doing something evil at least 51% of the time. (adjusting for sleep of course) Then I joined the twenty-first century and got the internet which has taught me that 51% of people spend waaaaaay too much time abusing abbreviations while finding joy in others misfortune.

    Now I’ve learned to accept that, even if it depresses me, yet this film one upped it considerably. Here I am, following a decent plot with some good suspense and mystery when biped mammals capable of walking upright and finding counter productive uses for their under appreciated opposable thumbs basically tell me that the patriot act is good. This of course illicits a bout of high pitched, keening ironic laughter that gradually turns into the kind of sob’s associated with hopeless despair. Bored as I was though, I continued to watch. Next thing I know the film tells me that terrorists are everywhere, living well adjusted successful lives with loving families and just waiting to be told to blow themselves up for some cause or another. Even more baffling is the decision to not blow up something cool like the government that’s oppressing them or the religion that has more members then theirs, no, they want to blow up some poor bastards trying to achieve some level of well adjusted success themselves. These potential victims are obviously not achieving even these basic goals as they are supposed to be riding a bus cross country to visit their relatives on thanksgiving, which any comedian or sitcom will tell you is a mistake since we must surely all have dysfunctional families we hate. Now my disbelief is back in full force. And here’s the fun part.

    The reason I love this film so much is that it gave me some self awareness. I realize now that the aforementioned naivete has mutated into the full on delusion that human beings are even capable of doing something, ANYTHING that isn’t disappointing to even my cynically low standards. That’s one hell of a revelation to have from a topical thriller. After watching this “lets all be scared of our potentially psychotic mass murdering neighbors” feel good hit of the summer (or whenever the hell it came out) everything else looks better by comparison. Even mundane things, such as that continue breathing exercise I was doing, seem more exciting when stacked up to this idiotic fear mongering propaganda.

    In conclusion, I wish the express still used the little guy in a chair rating system because I’d give this film a guy doing a standing ovation while pitching a family vacation sized tent for it’s incredible ability to make everything else better by comparison.

  8. Ken Hanke

    Jason, you realize, do you not, that you have in a sense just given a bad movie equivalent to the essence of Greek tragedy, which one appreciates as much because such makes us feel better about our lives (“Hey, at least I didn’t marry my mother and gouge my eyes out!”) as from any artistic merit.

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