2 1/2 stars out of four
Considering this is the least desirable movie weekend of the year, it's unusual a studio would choose it to release a big-budget action thriller with such high-octane talent. But the studio in question is the upstart Overture and after a half a dozen flops, it desperately needs a winner. The studio barely gets one with "Traitor."
Any movie featuring Don Cheadle will be interesting. With him playing the lead, any film will instantly be well worth your time and money.
Cheadle stars as Samir Horn, a Sudan-born Muslim American who will sell illegal explosives to anyone willing to pay the price. His regular association with extremist Muslim terrorist organizations has made him a prime target for the FBI task force, led by the methodical Roy Clayton (Guy Pearce). After a botched transaction that leads to his capture, Roy offers Samir a deal which he flatly refuses, which is odd as Samir's only other option is serving a life sentence in a Yemen prison, complete with the typical prison movie trappings. This is our first hint that all is not what it seems.
Wanting desperately to evoke the same large scale, international sprawl and narrative complexity of "Syriana" or "Traffic" (where Cheadle had a smaller role), director Jeffrey Nachmanoff is certainly in possession of the required style. He is ultimately limited by the iffy substance contained in his screenplay, based on an original story by - get ready for this - Steve Martin.
With its purposefully ambiguous title, relatively quick first twist and Samir's nebulous alliances, the movie sets itself up for a disappointing follow-through. After a flabby and mostly uneventful mid-section, the tail end of the second act picks up the slack, which leads to a semi-gripping, nail-biter of an ending.
Undercover/double-agent movies are among the most difficult to make it all the way through without showing some signs of strain, and "Traitor" is no different. Where the filmmakers - Martin included - excel is in getting the audience to rally behind and empathize with a Muslim terrorist. That's a tall order, given our current real world situation.
Also give credit to Cheadle for lending his character such a delicate balance of outward dispassion and simmering, inner turmoil. Samir continually walks a tumultuous tightrope where he must placate and convince two factions of his ultimate allegiance. Cheadle once again displays his considerable acting mettle by keeping us guessing until the very end.
Although a possible sequel is suggested, Cheadle would serve himself well by declining it and instead waiting patiently for a franchise with the same prestige and gravitas of "The Bourne Identity." Like his occasional co-star Matt Damon, Cheadle is in possession of all the requisite ingredients to more than successfully carry a limited series of super-spy films. (Overture)