August 28, 2008


Yet Another 48 Hrs.

Grade: B

Director: Jeffrey Nachmanoff

Starring: Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, Saïd Taghmaoui, Neal McDonough, and Aly Khan

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Running Time: 1 hour, 53 minutes

is another in the increasing line of films that strive to blend sober examination of historical Middle Eastern unrest and, in particular, recent Islamic terrorism into a familiar action-adventure construct – The Kingdom springs to mind. The perspectives of both the American foreign policy apparatus and Islamic-based terrorist organizations are presented with often discomforting objectivity. A terrorist co-opts a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. to support his wicked cause, and when a covert U.S. intelligence contractor declares, “It’s a war; you do whatever it takes to win,” it is sagely noted that he is speaking the same language as the terrorists.

However, the most radical part about Traitor is that it chooses to draw the dividing battle lines between good and evil not along nationalistic or jingoistic grounds, but instead as a religious conflagration. It is here where the film’s title finds it double-meaning. Initially, the moniker of “traitor” seems to apply to Sudanese-born, American-educated expatriate Samir Horn (the eternally underrated Don Cheadle), who as a child watched his father perish in a car bomb and then grows up to seemingly become a devout Muslim peddling arms to terrorist groups. Samir’s association with a terrorist cell headed by an Arab Muslim named Omar (Saïd Taghmaoui) lands him in a Yemenese prison, and after an escape the streets of France and the United States, where he is pursued by two FBI agents played by Guy Pearce (L.A. Confidential; Memento) and Neal McDonough.

Along the way, we eventually learn that Samir is a top-secret U.S. operative posing undercover to infiltrate the terrorist group. However, instead of being viewed as another sort of traitor (to his own people), the true betrayal the film chooses to spotlight is also Samir’s driving motivation: the belief that those who kill innocents in the name of Allah are blaspheming the true nature and meaning of Islam. Samir’s relationship with his C.I.A. handler (Jeff Daniels) is an uneasy one because while the American fights for country, Samir sees himself as fighting for God.

Writer-director Jeffrey Nachmanoff, working from a story originated by Steve Martin (yes, that Steve Martin), melds the weighty themes into occasionally edge-of-your-seat entertainment. All the elements of a neo-1970s spy thriller are in play: double agents; moles; disparate and dysfunctional government agencies; cloak & dagger intrigue; etc. And, the performances are uniformly top-notch, especially Cheadle, Pearce, and Taghmaoui.

It is only during the film’s final stage that is suffers a near-crippling identity crisis, as Nachmanoff transitions from Syriana to something akin to The Departed starring Jason Bourne. Holes and conveniences begin to infect the script, eroding its intelligent underpinning. Still, thanks largely to Cheadle’s skill and an uncompromising first-half, Traitor tries to become that rarest of breeds: a Hollywood blockbuster with a brain (released in August, no less).

Neil Morris

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