"Traitor" offers up one of the more maddeningly, gratifyingly complex lead characters seen in movies lately. Samir Horn (Don Cheadle) is a Sudanese-born, American-raised black man and a devoted Muslim. He's an explosives expert trained by the US military. He's also an enthusiastic new member of an international terrorist organization clearly modeled on Al Qaeda. And that's just for starters.
The film's a propulsive international espionage thriller, built on the hurry-scurry bones of the "Bourne" movies. It hops from Yemen to Washington, D.C., to Marseilles to London to Canada - the audience needs a visa just to keep up. And while "Traitor" expertly and entertainingly gets the pulse racing for two hours, it has more on its mind. Perhaps too much. Like a more urgent, slightly less smart "Syriana," the movie plugs into a grid of global political anxiety and warns us against thinking in black and white.
Samir's involvement with the bomb-squad wing prompts a slow-growing friendship with Omar, a self-styled "thinker not a soldier" played by the great French-Moroccan actor Saïd Taghmaoui ("The Kite Runner," "Three Kings"). Despite Samir's having a journalist girlfriend back in Chicago (Archie Punjabi), this is the real love story of "Traitor," and it's surprisingly affecting. Both men are rootless, intelligent, and sad; both are Muslims who dream in English. One uses his faith to rationalize killing innocents, the other - well, it's not entirely clear yet.
The movie, written and directed by Jeffrey Nachmanoff from a story by him and executive producer Steve Martin (yes, that Steve Martin; apparently he's wilder and crazier than we thought), keeps us guessing. Samir and the terrorist cell are being tracked by an FBI special task force headed by agent Roy Clayton, a brilliant, soft-spoken Southern boy played by Guy Pearce of all people. He has a partner (Neal McDonough), who's mostly on hand so Clayton can explain to us what's going on.
A bombing in Marseilles leaves several dead and Horn with blood on his hands; Cheadle beautifully conveys glints of moral agony beneath the character's dead eyes. As "Traitor" gradually circles back to America, building toward a terrorist plot that's half James Bond scenario and half post-9/11 paranoia (the worst kind, too - the kind that seems plausible), the film turns both more exciting and philosophically muddled.
It's not that there are too many characters involved - among them Jeff Daniels as a sneaky Capitol Hill pol and Aly Khan as a Saville Row jihadist. The problem with "Traitor" is that it wants to be compassionate while at the same time paralyzing us with Orange Level fear. The film reminds the audience that not all Muslims (or Christians, for that matter) think alike, and that "every religion has more than one face." It has respect for men of peace and sorrow for their opposite numbers. But it also shouts, with all-too-easy action-movie fervor, that the terrorists are here and they're right next door!
Well, which one's it going to be? "Traitor" ends with a satisfying twist that also renders the story more Hollywood-ordinary than one might like, but what sticks with a viewer is the anxiety gnawing at Cheadle's Samir Horn. The title cuts both ways: Who's the traitor here, and what's being betrayed? National security? One's God? As ambitious and provocative as "Traitor" is, I suspect it's the movie that got sold out.