“Traitor” has a fine cast of actors and two or three good ideas. What it mostly offers, though, is lip service, a tendency to bring up hot-button issues, frown thoughtfully at them for a few moments, then set them down again before moving on to the next superficially treated topic. It’s like buying a newspaper and only reading the headlines.
The titular turncoat, maybe, is Samir Horn (Don Cheadle), a Sudan-born, U.S.-raised man who now makes a living selling explosives to whoever wants to buy them. The FBI considers this a bad thing when Samir’s customers are Middle Eastern terrorists; they’re somewhat more forgiving when it’s the U.S. government doing the buying.
Samir is nabbed during a raid in Yemen, and FBI agents named Clayton (Guy Pearce) and Archer (Neal McDonough) start trying to piece together who he is. He was in the U.S. Army’s special forces at one point, getting in touch with his Muslim roots while stationed in the Middle East in the 1980s. Is he connected to the planning and execution of terror plots, or does he merely supply explosives? In other words, is he a terrorist or just an unprincipled capitalist?
The film’s intrigue, such as it is, lies in not knowing the answers to these questions ourselves, at least not for a while. Samir is cagey about his past (and his present) when being interrogated by the Feds, and he’s just as guarded with Omar (Said Taghmaoui), the jihadist he befriends in the Yemeni prison.
But once this bit of mystery has been solved, we’re left with a run-of-the-mill terrorism thriller that’s heavy on terrorism, light on thrills. Written and directed by Jeffrey Nachmanoff (writer of “The Day After Tomorrow”) from a story by Steve Martin (yes, that Steve Martin), the film expects us to be enthralled by Samir’s attempt to live a double life — quick, send that e-mail before so-and-so comes back with your coffee! — while also expecting us to be jazzed as the FBI agents pursue him. As is the case so often with these things, we figure out what’s going on long before the characters do.
Unfortunately, as much as I like Guy Pearce and Neal McDonough, their talents are wasted here, playing FBI characters that the film barely even needs. And is that Jeff Daniels as a secretive government agent? Really? Jeff Daniels? Huh. Weird.
Don Cheadle, an Oscar-nominee for “Hotel Rwanda,” is the wrong fit for Samir Horn. Samir is duplicitous and crafty; Cheadle’s strength is his quiet sincerity. He brings a certain thoughtfulness to Samir — but he also brings a certain dour, dull humorlessness. A film this boisterous needs a livelier protagonist.
Of course, there’s very little room for characterization anyway when your primary focus is Mentioning Important Things So That People Will Think You’re Smart. Among the topics brought up by “Traitor” are: racial profiling, Muslim extremism, the Department of Homeland Security’s uselessness, government secrecy, and fears about Islam in the United States. Samir Horn had a Muslim Sudanese father and a non-Muslim mother from Chicago, which makes it hard not to think of Barack Obama. Yet none of these potentially interesting issues is ever addressed in depth.
You can see why the film has been dumped into theaters on the last weekend of August. It’s serious and intense like a fall political drama, but it’s shallow and meaningless like a summer blockbuster. I wish that, like the traitor himself, the film had been able to fully commit to one or the other.
C (1 hr., 53 min.; )