The modern thriller offers any film maker a challenge: How do you compete with the news? In the age of the war on terror, any thriller that’s too realistic will scare the audience — and, at the same time, audiences can’t just relax and enjoy the fun, fake action antics of, say, a ’70s Roger Moore Bond film. Traitor, directed by Jeffery Nachmanoff, manages to succeed in spite of that challenge; it’s a thoughtful thriller that manages to get your brain and your heartbeat going at the same time.
Don Cheadle (Ocean’s Eleven, Out of Sight) stars in Traitor as Samir Horn, an ex-Special Forces soldier who’s reinvented himself as a cynical arms dealer; selling plastic explosives and detonators to a group of Islamic radicals, he notes that " I can also show you how to use them without blowing yourself up — unintentionally, that is." But Samir’s caught up in a raid, and the FBI man in charge of the investigation, Roy Clayton (Guy Pearce) tries to offer him a way out of a prison term in Yemen: "It’s clear to me that you’re not a fanatic. An opportunist, maybe, but not a fanatic."
Samir doesn’t take the deal, though, and is incarcerated alongside his customer, Omar (Saïd Taghmaoui) — who, after getting to know Samir, arranges for Samir’s escape. Samir winds up part of Omar’s terror cell, and seems willing to help Omar’s cause. And seems is the right word, because as Omar brings him into the fold of his group, Samir often gives the impression he’s holding back — but is that because Samir’s just not fully committed, or because he’s got a secret?
As the action spans the globe, Clayton and his partner Max Archer (Neal McDonough) stay on Samir’s trail. Archer thinks Samir’s turned into a terrorist, but Clayton can’t quite seem to come to the same conclusion, even after Samir’s linked to the bombing of an American Embassy building in France. … Traitor hinges on one big revelation, which most audience members will be able to see coming, and at the same time, it does some very interesting and unexpected things after that fact’s made clear to the audience. Traitor‘s a nice demonstration of how the expected twists and turns of a thriller can lay a successful foundation for the things we don’t expect later on.
If there’s one thing that makes Traitor worth watching, though, it’s Cheadle. Best known for his supporting work in crime capers, Cheadle makes for a satisfying action hero in the same vein as Matt Damon’s work as Jason Bourne, playing a man whose body and bravery make him tough, but whose quick mind makes him truly dangerous. Cheadle has scenes in Traitor where he convinces you he can out-fight his opposition, but he also sells the scenes where he’s out-thinking the players on the other side, too. Cheadle doesn’t just show us Samir’s body and mind in action, but also his soul; Samir’s a devout Muslim, and Cheadle shows the challenges and contradictions any person of faith can face in the modern world.
Nachmanoff has a firm hand on the paper-shuffling, note-taking, keyboard-clacking activity of modern intelligence, even if Pearce’s Clayton seems a little too close to Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive when he barks orders like "Let’s pull all the security tapes in a five-block radius. …" Nachmanoff wrote Traitor‘s screenplay, but it’s interesting to note that the original story is credited to Nachmanoff and Steve Martin — yes, the guy from The Jerk. Martin’s always hidden a quick mind behind the funny stuff, though, and you can sense that in play as Traitor moves towards a tense, tough finale. Traitor‘s a superbly-executed modern take on the globe-trotting thriller, and thanks to Cheadle, it’s as well-acted as it is well-made.