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.