by ED SYMKUS & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & I & lt;/span & n the newest offering of the subgenre that we'll call "small battle in big war" movies, writer-director Jeffrey Nachmanoff first tries to offer up some parallels between the Middle East of 30 years ago and today.
The film's opening sequence shows a young boy in 1978 Sudan witnessing a terrible explosion that takes the life of his father. Then we jump to contemporary Yemen, where Samir Horn (Don Cheadle) is running explosives and detonators to bad-guy militants in their holy war against infidels, er, Americans.
We meet Horn just as he's about to close a deal with middleman terrorist Omar (Said Taghmaoui). But they're not the only ones working secret deals in Yemen. There's also the FBI team headed by Agents Roy Clayton and Max Archer (Guy Pearce and Neal McDonough), who are there to catch bad-guy militants in their holy war against infidels, er, Americans.
A successful sting leaves Samir, Omar (and whoever else the agents didn't kill) in jail, where the two men find a lot in common. But the story doesn't stay just with them. It opens up on a worldwide picture of what a TV newscast calls a "new form of radicalism," focusing on the FBI's attempts to link a string of international attacks to a single Islamic terrorist.
Once all of that is established, the script gets back to its study of the elusive and hard-to-read Samir, who admits at one point, in thinking-out-loud mode, that he doesn't feel at home anywhere. We know that he has a girlfriend back in the States, but that he's always on the road, popping up in one hot spot after another. And we know that the FBI has their sights trained on him, fairly well convinced that he's a terrorist.
We wonder about him, too. Yeah, he's an American, and he used to be in the military, but he sure does look and act like a terrorist, what with his assistance in fitting would-be suicide bombers with the latest in explosive vests. Ah, but not much in Traitor is ever completely clear. The Americans don't much trust Horn, but then neither do the jihadists.
Samir and Omar eventually make their way to the States, where the law enforcement and spy outfits try to figure things out. The results include the distribution of a lot of explosives and detonators to a lot of people.
Nachmanoff would have us believe that anyone could be a terrorist and that the FBI is everywhere. (Oddly, the same isn't suggested about the CIA.)
While the performances are all strong, with a typically great one from Cheadle and an outstanding one from Taghmaoui (who wonderfully played the prince in Hidalgo), Traitor is more of an exercise in action than acting. There's also plenty of deception, even between friends, and a great deal of philosophical talk among the terrorists, even though they know that in the end they will blindly follow orders.
The film is compelling and intense and, as far as I can figure, it tells it like it is. But even with a terrific ending that works as a nice piece of writing -- and accompanying action -- its teeth aren't quite sharp enough. For that, you should check out the underappreciated and excellent 2007 film The Kingdom. That one will keep you up at night.
Written and directed by Jeffrey Nachmanoff
Starring Guy Pearce, Neal McDonough, Don Cheadle, Said Taghmaoui