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In the first scene of “Traitor,” the title character, Samir Horn, is a young boy in Sudan playing chess and praying with his evidently Muslim father. As the film progresses, religion and chess reappear often: the former, of course, quite literally, as the pious Samir (Don Cheadle, last seen pulling jobs with the “Oceans” crew) falls in with Muslim terrorists, and the latter as a — whaddaya call it? Oh yeah, a metaphor. Because a terrorist ring plotting a massive, highly coordinated attack inside the United States would trade gambits and sacrifice men as it faced off with the FBI, represented here by agents Roy Clayton (Guy Pearce doing his best Deep Southerner) and Max Archer (the spookily blue-eyed Neal McDonough). Gee, that sort of baiting and reacting is like — a game of chess!
Sigh. Chess it is, then, so in chess terms, check your good sense before exchanging money for a ticket to “Traitor,” or else you'll feel rooked. Because while the opening is promising and the endgame ain't that bad, “Traitor” has no middlegame to speak off. This is either a bad movie trapped inside a good one, or a good movie trapped inside a bad one. Either way, it should have been better.
Much of what's good owes to Cheadle's reserved rendering of Samir, the only three-dimensional human being in the movie. He's former U.S. Special Forces, and may or may not be a bad guy, once he's scooped up with a bunch of suspected terrorists in a raid in Yemen. In prison, as he earns the respect of a jihadist named Omar (Said Taghmaoui), the movie threatens to blossom into a thoughtful look at the prison lives of accused terror suspects (now there would be a movie!).
But then a noisy jailbreak ensues, and we hustle to a genre exercise. For what it is, the movie passes. The edits in the action sequences aren't as jarringly kaleidoscopic as, say, the “Bourne” flicks; the score nicely marries drum and bass, a strings section and Middle Eastern rhythms. Omar enlists Samir and his explosives expertise for bombings in Europe, with grander designs to follow. “Terrorism is theater,” one jihadist explains over tea, and the American public is to be the audience. Samir's motivation for working on these attacks booby-traps the plot beautifully. At its sinister best, “Traitor” constructs some marvelous tension.
Then, just as the movie starts to feel subversive and unpredictable, writer/director Jeffrey Nachmanoff (whose screenplay credits include the heavy-handed “The Day After Tomorrow”) inflicts a series of at least four separate, insultingly idiotic plot elements inside of 15 minutes and the illusion dissolves. Damn shame, that.
Part of the pleasure of the cloak and dagger flick is feeling, at times, that the movie itself is, like a perfect chess opponent, slightly smarter than you. At that, “Traitor” had potential. In one shot, for instance, an obscured background prop is last September's issue of Harper's Magazine, the cover story of which was an essay, “Disaster Capitalism,” by Naomi Klein; her book “The Shock Doctrine” includes that phrase as its subtitle. In both, she describes how the recent privatization of basic functions of the state — security and infrastructure, e.g. — has fed a shadow economy of contractors in war zones and storm sites.
Through that lens, “Traitor” could be seen, tantalizingly, as a counterpoint to the West's desire to bulldoze terrorism with sheer expenditure, and a look at how a little money, spent on the other side of an asymmetrical war, goes much farther for terrorists (now there would be a movie!), with Samir the religious mercenary slithering through the jihadists' shadow economy. Instead, the buffoonery of the storytelling undercuts all that. Though a couple of nifty twists will ensure your $9 isn't a total loss, “Traitor” isn't as smart as you want it to be. Instead of counting on the movie to explain itself, see it with a few people who read, then adjourn for beers. At the very least, there's enough here to start a decent conversation about the real ideas it abandons.