The word “jihad,” which means “struggle,” may have been correctly applied in Sharma’s documentary. But Traitor uses the connotation that the world is unfortunately more familiar with: “Jihad” still refers to a struggle but one fueled by extremism and violence.
This political thriller fleshes out a story by Steve Martin—yes, the wild ’n’ crazy one—about the pursuit of a former U.S. Special Operations officer and lifelong Muslim who has gone to the dark side, selling explosives to terrorists and committing violent acts himself. Samir (Don Cheadle) lived in Sudan until he witnessed his father killed in a car bombing. He and his mother moved to Chicago when Samir was 12, but stints in the military took him all over the world, eventually leading him to where we meet him as an adult: Yemen, negotiating a detonator sale when FBI agents Roy Clayton (Guy Pearce), Max Archer (Neal McDonough), and what seems like a small militia open fire. Samir and one of the clients, Omar (Said Taghmaoui), are imprisoned.
In prison, Samir proves to be both sinner and saint. He literally feeds the hungry, standing up to the jailyard kingpin who’d rather let another convict starve. But he’s a tight-lipped smartass to Clayton and Archer, not seeming to care that his chances of freedom will be slim without their help. Omar initially doesn’t trust Samir but gradually accepts that he’s a “brother” and wants to help the Islamic fight against America. “I only wish to serve [Allah’s] will,” Samir tells him, even if it means killing innocents.
Wait, this is Don Cheadle?
Given the violence and trauma he experienced as a child, it’s easy to imagine the devout Samir following a vengeful path. But for the first half of Traitor, Cheadle’s character seems more akin to Clayton’s initial impression: “opportunistic, perhaps, but not a fanatic.” When Samir and Omar escape prison and begin plotting attacks, though, Samir switches from instructor to participant, first helping to kill eight people by planting bombs at the American consulate in Nice. He balks when he thinks a suicide bomber is too young and experienced, insisting each “mission” be carried out correctly.
However, “it’s complicated,” as Samir tells a former girlfriend during a brief stop in Chicago. (With characters blowing up stuff in one country and walking the streets of another two shakes later, Traitor feels like a heavily armored Amazing Race.) All the complications added by screenwriter-director Jeffrey Nachmanoff make this 114-minute chase a bit of a slog. But even viewers burned out on talk about politics and war will be queasily engrossed by conversations inside Samir’s cell, especially when one of the leaders explains that “[People] should accept that each American is responsible for its government’s crimes.” The tendrils and intricate planning of such an organization give a fresh perspective of the FBI’s job, suggesting that hunting down those intent on murder and destruction isn’t so a simple task. And just when you start to get bored, a giant d’oh!-worthy plot turn makes things exciting again.
As always, Cheadle’s performance is a fine one: His character’s ambivalence about his actions is readable on his face only when it’s necessary to clue viewers in to the layers of the story. Pearce, playing another by-the-book good-guy but with a Southern-boy lilt, is just as effective but less irritating here than he was in, say, L.A. Confidential. (Wasted, however, is Jeff Daniels, in a crucial-but-tiny role that would have been better served by a no-name.) Nachmanoff’s worst sins are an abundance of chess metaphors, an unsteady camera that’s not quite Bourne–like but still somewhat nauseating, and tiresome talk of Samir’s religiousness, which culminates in a truly ridiculous parting shot. It may be more appropriate to the Cheadle we’re used to, but dirtying him up didn’t necessarily require later polishing him to a holy gleam.