Thursday, September 04, 2008

Traitor


"Traitor" is one of those good films that makes a quiet opening during an off-movie season (in this case, one of the last few days of August). And it performs decently at the box office, before disappearing out of the theaters and then popping up a few months later on DVD. It's a sad fact that films like "Traitor" appear as counter programming to garbage films that young audiences would eat up (in this case, "Babylon A.D." or "Disaster Movie,") but this is why film critics enjoy their jobs-because from time to time they will be saved from trash with something worthy like this one. I am assuming that "Traitor" is trying to go down a similar path as "The Constant Gardener," which managed to find an audience after being released on the final day of August three years ago. And based on its first weekend box office, it might not do as bad as I had assumed. 

It could be the face of Don Cheadle, plastered on all of the posters and television spots, that could get people out. I don't exactly understand why Don Cheadle doesn't have a bigger career than he does. He's been nominated for an Oscar, people know his name, he headlines films all the time. He's one of those actors who goes off the radar for a bit, and than he'll be in a film and quietly blow me away (like in last summer's "Talk to Me," which deserved an acting nomination for him.) Here he plays Samir Horn, who is blamed for a few explosions and bombings in Yemen by Roy Clayton (Guy Pearce) and his partner Max Archer. I will warn readers from here on there are a few minor spoilers for the film, but only revelations within the first forty five minutes of the movie. I went into the film quite blindly, so everything was really a surprise for me. Samir ends up escaping from Clayton's custody, and runs off with Omar. Clayton discovers that Samir was once involved with the FBI. Samir and Omar then join a group of terrorists, using Samir's explosives expertise as a way to get them to bomb embassies in London. A cat and mouse chase ensures between Clayton and Samir, leading up to a massive terrorist attack where Samir and company plan on blowing up thirty buses in various locations around the world all at the same time. But there is also a slim chance that Samir might be actually working with the FBI, under Carter (Jeff Daniels, in a cameo appearance despite heavily appearing on all the advertisements), the only person that knows his true identity.

These cat and mouse films have been made several times in the past (I think I am mostly reminded of "Catch a Fire" as the most recent entry in this type of film), but its the execution of "Traitor" that really elevates the material from typical standard political thriller. The film flows along at such a natural pace that at times its almost as if there wasn't even a script. Cheadle plays most of the emotion through his face, which in certain scenes seem to contain all of the pain and sadness that Samir is clearly going through-having to leave his girlfriend, job, and identity behind as he emerges deep undercover. And even if he isn't undercover there is still a kind of pain in him and he struggles with what he is doing. When he blows up the London embassy he hears on the news that eight people were killed. "8?!" he cries out. When asked why he's upset, he stumbles out "I would have thought it would be more." Scenes with no dialogue are carried by Cheadles ability to contort his face to always have the audience see the layers behind Samir.  Side work by Jeff Daniels and Guy Pearce is both good. I wish Daniels would have had more screen time, as his performance contained some layers to his character that weren't quite there. Perhaps there was something cut out of the final film-some more backstory between his relationship with Samir-that we won't be able to see. It really is just more backup to the fact that Jeff Daniels is a fine actor, even in small plot moving characters such as Carter. I really don't have much to say about Guy Pearce. He isn't one of my favorite actors around, but when he does a movie I have no objection to him normally. 

The whole movie really does work together in terms of suspense. From the opening explosion, across the world as we follow Samir, Cheadle's performance works with the technical work around it. The intense score really does fit well. The shots are short, but never headache inducing-all of the action portions are edited to where we can actually see what is going on. And the script (which is based on a story that was presented by Steve Martin, which made me leave the theatre in shock), is smart enough to leave plenty of suspense even after twists are called out. I never actually felt like I was one step ahead of Samir or Clayton, and when the final twist presents itself I actually laughed out loud by how clever I found it. And the ending scene does not get as preachy as it could have, giving Cheadle the final line that could have been a long winded speech had this been a different type of movie. "Traitor" is a damn good suspense film, centered by a fine performance by Don Cheadle, who can take as long a break as he wants in between projects, as long as he keeps delivering the goods.

*** of ****

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