The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. Just as the Dems were wrapping up their histrionic national convention and attention turned to the GOP and their efforts to prove to political fence-sitters that Barack Obama’s ideas on national security are about as durable as two geeky kids holding hands during a game of Red Rover, John McCain’s potshots would coincide perfectly with the finest in film fearmongering.
Terrorists are running amok in Traitor, the espionage thriller starring Academy Award-nominated Cheadle (Hotel Rwanda), and, based on the large number the film shows infiltrating America, chances are you run into a few of them on a daily basis. One of them is probably watching you read this sentence right now (Shhh! Whatever you do, don’t look up).
At least not until the FBI tracks down Samir Horn (Cheadle), a former U.S. Special Forces Officer and devout Muslim who’s become a bit too cozy with some jihadists in Yemen. When agents Roy Clayton (Guy Pearce) and Max Archer (Neal McDonough) finally catch him selling a truckload of detonators to some shady Arabs and lock him away, it doesn’t take long for Samir to quickly develop a friendship with Omar (Taghmaoui), another Islamic inmate, who includes him in a successful prison break.
From here, Traitor becomes less like an international spy movie and more like an episode of Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? with better production values and more explosives. When trigger-happy suicide bombers start killing innocent civilians across the globe, evidence leads back to Samir, who has taken control of a new terrorist cell. At this point, it’s not apparent whether the film’s title indicates Samir’s disloyalty to the U.S. or his betrayal of comrades who remind him of the regime that killed his father in Sudan when he was only a boy.
Despite his always-intense demeanor, Cheadle’s talent trails off as Samir’s blood feud grows increasingly desperate. As Cheadle’s career has progressed over the last 25 years, he has demonstrated that when the script is substantial, he’ll make a distinct impression, whether it’s in a supporting role (’70s porn-star-turned-stereo-salesman Buck Swope in Boogie Nights) or the lead (‘60s radio talk-show activist Petey Greene in Talk to Me). Unfortunately, first-time director Nachmanoff (claim to quasi-fame: The Day After Tomorrow screenplay) wrote the film based on an idea from the wild-and-crazy mind of actor Steve Martin (who gets “Story” credit).
While Cheadle scrapes by, others like Pearce and McDonough are written into a corner as a two-headed good cop/bad cop unit spinning their wheels. Gone are the days when foot chases were paired with mind games like Tommy Lee Jones hunting Harrison Ford in The Fugitive or Tom Hanks tracking Leonardo Di Caprio in Catch Me if You Can. Instead, Nachmanoff creates a conventional hybrid of passable action sequences, cliché analogies, and geopolitical drama while still finding time to point out all the terrorists hiding in your backyard. Now that’s what I call Homeland Security.