Photograph by Rafy
HAIR TRIGGER : Don Cheadle plays a reluctant explosives trafficker in 'Traitor.'
'Traitor': Tourists or terrorists? You decide.
By Richard von Busack
And the Oscar for best second-unit director goes to Traitor, Jeffrey Nachmanoff's uneven but engrossing thriller. The locations keep flying past: Marseilles, London, Toronto, Chicago, L.A., Tijuana, Yemen, Halifax. Meanwhile, the plot is simplicity itself: a pair of semibelievable paragons in a global chase. As Traitor deals with Muslim extremism, you long to take it seriously for the subject matter. And then come the clumsy lines along the way--director/writer Nachmanoff (the scripter for The Day After Tomorrow) has FBI agents studying the file of a wily terrorist and exclaiming, "His test scores are off the charts!" The filmmakers were so proud of this line that they put it in the previews.
The half-Sudanese, half-American Samir, played by co-producer Don Cheadle, witnessed the political assassination of his father. After this misfortune, he grew up to be a demolitions expert in Special Forces in the U.S. military, a vet of Afghanistan and Bosnia. Now he has switched sides and is marketing plastic explosive to terrorist groups in Yemen. Technical advice is part of his service, so that his clients can use the explosives "without blowing yourself up--unintentionally, I mean." You win no points if you suspect Samir of being a Bruce Wayne-style overcompensater posing as a jihadist.
Cheadle is an interestingly impassive and yet never sullen subject for the camera. The culturally sensitive trick of Traitor is that Samir is a devout Mecca-seeking Muslim who feels the terrorists are betraying the faith. The first half of the film is the most intensive as Samir forms a gradual friendship with Omar (Saïd Taghmaoui, the boxer-turned-actor who was in La Haine); Omar points Samir toward the big man in the organization, a debonair playboy villain (Aly Khan).
Meanwhile Guy Pearce, using one of those haute-Southern accents that's so soft it might as well be British, plays agent Roy Clayton, a former Baptist seminary student turned Ph.D. in Islamic Studies. "You know, back in J. Edgar Hoover's day, you wouldn't have been accepted," says Clayton's more unclever partner Max (Neal McDonough), another one of those lines that, at the time, must have seemed to have written itself.
Traitor is built on the idea that if the locations change fast enough, viewers will be too dizzied to choke on the improbabilities (such as the punch line) or to ask questions like "Why do sleeper-cell novice suicide bombers have to be given authentic plastic explosives? Couldn't you bamboozle them with Play-Doh?"
The thriller, executive-produced by Steve Martin, daringly uses a Martin Luther King quote--"If a man hasn't discovered something he will die for, he isn't fit to live"--as an idea both pacifists and suicide bombers can agree upon. Plausible information in the film's corners--bomb-making tips and rituals of the martyr to be, perhaps lifted from the film Paradise Now--give the film a sense of being well researched. It's brisk and paranoid enough to keep you interested. And Cheadle's Edward G. Robinson-style air of toughness and wounded soul never gets boring.
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