EmptyOpens: Wednesday, Aug. 27 (Overture Films)
"Traitor" is the cinematic equivalent of an airport novel that can be purchased before a long flight, read en route and discarded upon landing. The film is a genuinely gripping tale about international terrorism that hopscotches across three continents. It moves from a filthy, sweaty prison to the air-conditioned headquarters of the FBI as an agent tracks a shadowy Muslim American through a string of conspiracies and fatal bombings.
The film offers no serious insights into the terrorist mind-set, Wahhabi fanaticism or jihadist goals. Its characters are built for speed, not complications, though the tangled plot does create a few moral conundrums plus an intriguing third-act twist, albeit one that most viewers will see coming.
Writer-director Jeffrey Nachmanoff, working from an idea by Steve Martin -- yes, that Steve Martin -- drives "Traitor" through heightened tensions and enough story twists to qualify as a "page-turner."
Producer-star Don Cheadle dominates the film as the renegade U.S. military operative, but he does so without stealing any thunder from a number of fine actors in meaty roles. The film looks poised to play to a fairly broad international audience, though presumably not in the Middle East.
"Traitor" launches parallel stories simultaneously when Guy Pearce's FBI agent Roy Clayton and his old-school partner Max Archer (Neal McDonough) encounter an American citizen inside a Yemeni prison. Cheadle's Samir Horn, who was born in that country, has been caught pedaling detonators to militants. When he rejects their offer to exchange information for freedom, the agents figure that's the last they'll see of him.
But Samir is befriended in prison by a strong-willed terrorist named Omar (Moroccan-French actor Said Taghmaoui). Omar not only appreciates Samir's skills with explosives and combat but also recognizes a fellow true believer. Despite being raised in the U.S. after the assassination of his Yemeni father, Samir has become a jihadist. During a prison break, Omar takes Samir along. Soon bombings in Spain and then France trace back to Omar's terrorist network. A closed-circuit camera even catches Samir leaving the U.S. consulate in Nice moments before a fatal blast.
The escalating stories on both sides, certain to converge at a fateful juncture, present a classic race against time. As Samir moves deeper into the terrorist network, he makes contract with its westernized strategists, well-hidden money men and sleeper cells throughout North America. Meanwhile, as Roy frantically maneuvers to discover and disarm a large terrorist attack designed to coincide with Thanksgiving, he grows convinced that there is more to Samir than meets the eye.
Robust performances pop up at every point. Bollywood actor Aly Khan plays a terrorist disguised as a sophisticated international businessman. Jeff Daniels is a CIA contractor who knows more than he lets on. Mozhan Marno is the agent back at headquarters on top of every move in the international terrorist community. Indian actress Archie Panjabi plays an old girlfriend in Chicago whom Samir mistakenly tries to contact. (That last plot turn is poorly motivated.)
With a sprawling production that spans many international locations, "Traitor" is efficient and convincing. It's a fast ride, but its central character, the enigmatic Samir Horn, is always cool and calm.
Production: Mandeville Films, Hyde Park Entertainment, Crescendo Prods. Cast: Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, Jeff Daniels, Neal McDonough, Said Taghmaoui, Aly Khan, Archie Panjabi. Screenwriter-director: Jeffrey Nachmanoff. Story by: Steve Martin, Jeffrey Nachmanoff. Producers: David Hoberman, Todd Lieberman, Don Cheadle, Jeffrey Silver. Executive producers: Ashok Amritraj, Steve Martin, Arlene Gibbs, Kay Liberman. Director of photography: J. Michael Muro. Production designer: Laurence Bennett. Music: Mark Kilian. Costume designer: Gersha Phillips. Editor: Billy Fox. Rated PG-13, 113 minutes.