Traitor is a solid, gripping, only occasionally preachy thriller built around the War on Terror. Ripped-from-the-headlines realism, top-drawer performances by Don Cheadle and Guy Pearce, a dandy "ticking clock" story structure and a vast catalog of terrorist modus operandi make this as harrowing as it is timely.
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Samir (Cheadle) was born in Sudan but grew up in America. He served his new country in the military, but when we meet him, he's selling plastic explosives to Islamic terrorists in Yemen. He's a devout Muslim. He's tough. The Arab terror cell Al Nathir wants him.
And after he's been slapped around by FBI agents in a Yemeni prison, he's open to the offer of cell leader Omar (Saïd Taghmaoui).
Pearce and Neal McDonough are FBI counter-terrorism agents. Roy Clayton (Pearce) has studied Arabic and uses every interrogation to make a speech about how torture doesn't work, what a waste of money Homeland Security is and how "every religion has more than one face." He is, his partner labels him, "an egghead dragged into a street fight."
Something big is coming. A guy with Samir's experience and connections could be useful to the worldwide terror network that this movie lays out. There are "sleeper" cells everywhere, moles in government agencies. Before Traitor is done, bombs will explode, innocents will die, friendships will be betrayed and lovers cast aside.
The structure here borrows from The Departed and American Gangster. We follow parallel lives on a collision course. Samir travels to Italy, France, Canada and America, doing the bidding of his new friends — building bombs and teaching others to use them. Clayton is always a step or two behind him.
Director Jeffrey Nachmanoff (he wrote The Day After Tomorrow) doesn't balance the two stories equally and blows a few opportunities to max out the suspense. It's a complicated script, but not overly so, with that cliché "Things are not necessarily what they seem" hanging over it.
Cheadle and Pearce give the movie its juice and make the cat-and-mouse stuff fascinating. Cheadle plays Samir with a straight-on American accent, a man given his Islamic street cred by his serious study of the Quran, which he quotes as freely as he does Martin Luther King Jr. McDonough, as the FBI sidekick, gets the few funny lines. And Aly Khan makes an urbane, polished and hypocritical terror mastermind, just the sort of villain the movies like — he sports a posh British accent.
"Terrorism is theater," he says, in his best Alan Rickman imitation.
This doesn't have the explosions and chases of some action procedurals (think The Kingdom), but thanks to Khan, it has something the movies are in short supply of these days — a truly hiss-able villain. Cheadle is that other vital missing piece at the dark heart of Traitor, someone whose motives, methods and loyalties everyone can question, a genuine man of mystery.