A super agent is in so deep that his real identity is called into question and his own government is hunting him. Now he races against time to unravel a global conspiracy and free himself from a cycle of violent intrigue.
Sound familiar? In plot and style, Traitor (opening August 27th) might as well be Bourne again, right down to the raw handheld shooting and the icy throb of electronica over soaring, cityscape transitions.
While Bourne wouldn’t have existed without Bond, it seems Ludlum’s freshly-minted movie icon has returned the favor, updating a stale and over-engineered genre with a new quantity of danger. First-time director Jeffrey Nachmanoff (writer of The Day After Tomorrow) can be forgiven for swiping a few trade secrets from Greengrass’s field manual, as whatever the film lacks in head-on collisions and dislocated shoulders is leveraged against a sharp and nuanced original screenplay.
Don Cheadle is Samir Horn, an American-born Sudanese who has been hanging by a thread in radical Muslim circles for a decade. His operation is so covert that his arms deal is hit by an FBI task force led by Agent Roy Clayton (Guy Pearce). Horn is dropped into a prison in Yemen where he befriends a true believer Omar (Said Taghmaoui) and, in a thrilling low-tech prison break, is received into the extremists’ inner circle. Agent Clayton is convinced that Horn is off the reservation and stays on his trail.
Samir’s descent into the brotherhood marks the moment when the movie transcends its derivative trappings. The Muslim faith is not just a cover, it’s Samir’s guiding force, and the key to Omar’s trust. As an amnesiac, Bourne may have it easier. Cheadle’s remarkable turn shows a man wearing ten years in the field, consumed by a loneliness that is vastly more complicated than a marquee-killer’s usual monkish tendencies. When he’s welcomed into a group with people who share his beliefs, traitor or not the bond he forms with Omar is real.
The dynamic wouldn’t work without Said Taghmaoui (many will recognize him from his startling role as a congenial torturer in Three Kings). Cheadle will draw the spotlight but Taghmaoui’s work is heartbreaking. In lesser hands and on a weaker page the character might have resembled little more than a mug shot from Guantanamo. Omar is the link that makes the movie work. His earnest, ferocious, dryly funny presence is the companion piece to Samir. They are more or less the same man separated only by their true associations. When Samir is forced to bring Omar and his group to justice, it feels like a betrayal. It’s an achievement in tone that is largely owned by Taghmaoui.
The ending isn’t without a few holes. A solid performance by Guy Pearce is saddled with a trite final scene, and the twist is far from air tight. The film was inspired by a pitch from actor/author/playwright Steve Martin, and it shows in a bizarrely tasteless climax. In the time between proposal and completion, this movie had clearly become something else, a story boldly invested in the truth of Muslim faith and its abuse by extremists, a thriller propelled less by the threat of discovery than a crisis of the hero’s tragic attachment to his target. The “punchline” should have been jettisoned like bad intel, but the 100 minutes that precede it are well worth the money for those in search of entertainment that is a little more substantial, but no less exciting for it.
Traitor opens in theaters everywhere August 27th