Traitor, an international espionage thriller written and directed by Jeffrey Nachmanoff (better known as the guy who wrote the global warming thriller The Day After Tomorrow), pits Guy Pearce’s southern Baptist F.B.I. man Roy Clayton against Don Cheadle’s devout Muslim, maybe renegade, former U.S. soldier Samir Horn in a cat and mouse game across several continents and 17 cities. The movie is loaded with misguided Muslims and Americans alike, all of them just trying to do the right thing and slaughtering innocents in the process, so it comes as no surprise that several of the crew (including DP J. Michael Muro) and Cheadle himself were involved in the faux-deep car wreck that was Crash. For the Traitor script is as jam-packed with simpleminded and heavy-handed exposition-posing-as-profound-thought as it is with suicide bombings and hand-to-hand combat action—all of it so painful to listen to and observe that I wanted to blow myself up during the first half. And I don’t even like virgins.
Which is too bad since the story concept (originating with executive producer Steve Martin!) is as complex and interesting as the script is clichéd and tedious. Cheadle’s Samir is a living lens through which the twin paradoxes of causing violence by doing the right thing and saving lives by doing the wrong thing are magnified. Happily, the story’s twists and turns are both numerous and unpredictable. Yet the lightning speed pacing, courtesy of slick editing and drive-by camera moves through the numerous foreign locales (all set to jaunty Middle Eastern music), feels like nothing more than a desperate attempt to distract us from the atrocious, one-note, tone deaf script. Any visual enjoyment is tempered by the Al Gore lecture posing as the film’s dialogue (only An Inconvenient Truth is more thrilling and informative).
One montage sequence in which Samir’s background is monotonously droned from different mouths is particularly grating. An F.B.I. agent reads from a file that Samir’s father was Sudanese and his mother is from Chicago (yeah, got that from several other scenes), cut to another person talking about how he had discipline problems in high school—nearly killed a kid!—and on and on. And does any of this make any difference to the story? Of course not. Nachmanoff employs this unnecessary drivel as running time filler, ignoring the very apparent fact that having other characters lay out the lead’s back-story is wet cement, not cinematic in the slightest. And some of the lines are unintentionally hilarious, as when Clayton’s old school partner Max Archer (eerie-eyed Neal McDonough) reads a file and suddenly grasps that some bombing victims may have been fake: “Wait—these people died as infants!” he declares.
However, what’s not so humorous are the many clichéd Muslim characters—either piously praying or cynically drinking wine—surrounding Cheadle’s three-dimensional one. In the press notes, Nachmanoff and his producers take pride in having cast actual Arabs in the roles of, uh, Arabs! But this whole “we hired Arabs to play Arabs,” p.c. self-congratulating is offensive in light of the fact that not one Arab is serving in any key position of power on the film. Without Arabs in the all important roles of producers or writers, director or cinematographer, Nachmanoff’s simply putting an American point of view into the mouths of Arab actors, then hiding behind that flimsy mask and patting himself on the back for his Muslim “sensitivity” (as superficial an act as making Pearce’s Clayton “complicated” by having him major in Arabic in college). Personally, I’d rather see Benicio del Toro play Samir’s terrorist pal Omar over French-Moroccan hottie Saïd Taghmaoui (from Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine) and have an Arab at the helm.
Yet it’s apparent why impressive talent like Cheadle (who needs to challenge himself soon by just playing an out-and-out badass villain, as his likability is wearing out its welcome), Pearce, and Jeff Daniels (as an independent contractor for the C.I.A.) signed on to this grand idea that doesn’t deliver. Cheadle got onboard for a chance to explore a complicated and contradictory leading man. (Unfortunately, as deep as Samir is, he’s still tied to an unsubtle script.) Aussie Guy Pearce wanted the chance to don a good ole boy accent. (Unfortunately, it sounds like southern fried Australia.) And Jeff Daniels probably just wanted to fund his Purple Rose Theatre Company in Michigan. All sound reasons in my book. But if I learned anything from watching Traitor, it’s that sometimes doing what you think is the right thing just ain’t good enough.