After a 2007 filled with serious, weighty dramas about the war on terror, all of which ended up more or less tanking at the box office, this year has been relatively quiet on the terrorism-movie front. Enter Traitor, a slick political thriller from screenwriter and director Jeffrey Nachmanoff, which uses the fight against terrorists as the backdrop for a twisty suspense story that manages to wholly sidestep the war in Iraq. Nachmanoff, working from an idea by Steve Martin (yes, that Steve Martin), does try to address some serious questions about the religious motivations behind terrorist acts, but in the end he's more concerned with gotcha moments than with intellectual discourse.
That's not necessarily a bad thing—Peter Berg's The Kingdom was one of the few relatively successful war-on-terror movies of last year, and that's largely because it eschewed the big political statements in favor of a story with lots of suspense and explosions. Traitor gets the explosions right, but the suspense lags through most of its middle section, thanks to a structure that often has the audience knowing more about what's going on than the characters do.
The film follows Sudanese-born American citizen Samir Horn (Don Cheadle) as he works his way into a terrorist organization planning a large-scale attack on American soil. As Samir uses his bomb-making expertise to climb the group's ranks, a pair of FBI agents (Guy Pearce and Neal McDonough) work against time to track him and his associates down. Nachmanoff leap-frogs rapidly around the globe, with scenes taking place in London, Marseilles, Yemen, Toronto, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., among other places, but never spends enough time in one locale to establish it as distinctive. Each is just a title card and a skyline.
A devout Muslim, Samir spends much of the film pondering the religious implications of his actions, and that exploration of Muslim values is the most intriguing part of the movie. It's not taken as far as it could be, though, thanks to a mid-film twist that's relatively obvious but makes the story's thorny morality into something a lot more simplistic and easy to swallow. Plot-wise, it also removes a lot of the tension; since we know exactly what Samir is up to and why, it's hard to get worked up over whether or not the FBI will track him down or figure out what he's trying to accomplish. Cheadle is focused but sometimes too distant as Samir, and Pearce and McDonough don't get enough screen time to develop their characters beyond basic cop archetypes.
Superficial geopolitical trappings aside, Traitor is an old-fashioned crime thriller, with fairly clear delineations of good and bad guys (although one of Samir's associates is allowed to be sympathetic even while preaching terrorist ideology) and an absurd finale that gives everyone what they deserve. Like The Kingdom, it's a fantasy of right triumphing over wrong that pays lip service to all the gray areas in between but ultimately has use for them only as plot devices. Unlike The Kingdom, it's not quite exciting enough to cover for its lack of political depth.