Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
Assuming our sources can be trusted, the way Traitor came to pass is this: Steve Martin, in the throes of Bringing Down the House, dreamed up an espionage thriller. (It's easy to imagine how his mind might have wandered during that particular production.)
It involved an undercover U.S. military operative deep in the Middle East, possibly at the center of an international conspiracy, and on the run from terrorists and feds alike. And it ended with a major twist.
Martin told his idea to a producer, who is said to have liked it, but then hired Jeffrey Nachmanoff co-writer of the glum, dumb The Day After Tomorrow to write and direct. Still, Nachmanoff had his own twist to offer, making the protagonist a Muslim American deeply conflicted about his actions. Then Don Cheadle read the script and wanted the part.
And now that Traitor is done, it seems like puffing it up with commercial viability also was a way of watering down its premise. The clever maneuver of the ending remains, but the rest of the movie feels ultimately too much like a theoretical exercise for simply setting it up.
Cheadle's operative is a Sudan-born Muslim American named Samir Horn, who speaks several languages and counts both mujahideen and the U.S. Army among his affiliations. But, as he puts it, the one authority to whom he answers is Allah.
The movie begins with Samir selling explosives to jihadists in Yemen, then getting arrested with them and accused of being a traitor who sold them out. It may or may not help that two FBI agents (Guy Pearce and Neal McDonough) seem to consider Samir a person of interest for something serious, and come to interrogate him in the Yemeni prison.
They offer freedom in exchange for vital information, but Samir would rather stay put, standing up to a jailyard thug and playing chess with fellow inmate Omar (Sad Taghmaoui), who eventually includes him in a prison break and in a terrorist network with plans for havoc in Europe and the U.S.
Plots thicken, blood spills, Jeff Daniels surfaces as a shady CIA lifer, and all the major players find themselves embroiled in a race against time and an impending attack involving terrorists on U.S. buses. It becomes clear that when Samir finally answers to his one authority, he'll have much to answer for, indeed.
And it's a good thing Cheadle supplies the needed moral heft here, because Nachmanoff doesn't have much to offer. The characters register only faintly less like the multi-dimensional people Nachmanoff's script pretends them to be than like placeholders in a gimmicky but ultimately simple procedural political thriller.
To its credit, the movie moves swiftly enough to briefly distract from its own hackneyed conventionality. But disappointments and doubts can't be held off for long.
Had Steve Martin taken the reins of Traitor himself, it might have evolved into a bravely bitter and affecting black comedy. Or maybe it would've turned into its own highly lethal sort of bomb. But Martin played it safe by handing his concept over to the Hollywood machine. In this modern age of morally ambiguous entertainment, whether that amounts to a high crime will depend on how much treason the American public can tolerate.