September 9, 2008

REVIEW: Traitor (B-)

Background: Just when I thought we were done with these movies, along comes Steve Martin. Yes, the same Steve Martin, and the person who apparently came up with the idea for Traitor while he was acting opposite Queen Latifah in 2003's Bringing Down the House (no doubt Martin decided to name this movie after his agent). But hey, good for him for branching out in between Pink Panther sequels. At the helm is co-writer and director Jeffrey Nachmanoff, who last penned The Day After Tomorrow. Leading the cast are Don Cheadle (Ocean's 13), Guy Pearce (Death Defying Acts), and Saïd Taghmaoui (The Kite Runner). Jeff Daniels (The Lookout) also shows up and successfully separates himself even further from his now somewhat shocking involvement in Dumb and Dumber.

Synopsis : Samir Horn (Cheadle), born in Sudan and raised in Chicago, is a devout Muslim working undercover as a detonator specialist. The only person who knows his true identity is Federal Agent Carter (Daniels), who helps him infiltrate a terrorist network masterminded by somebody named Hamzi. The problem is, Horn has to actually convince the terrorists that he will literally kill for their cause. Fortunately he's a great liar, and for months he successfully deceives both his Islamic fundamentalist partner Omar (Taghmaoui) and also FBI Agent Roy Clayton (Pearce), who along with his laser-eyed partner is trying to prevent Horn from carrying out Hamzi's horrific plan: simultaneous suicide bombers striking dozens of American buses over the Thanksgiving holiday.

I Loved:
+ The effort at a more positive portrayal of Islam. It didn't work, but I acknowledge the effort.

I Liked:
+ Guy Pearce, who it turns out has made little worth seeing in the last few years apart from The Preposition (which I actually didn't even see). He appears to have a lot in production the next year or so (including the upcoming Iraq War movie The Hurt Locker), but it remains to be seen if he can erase his performance in The Time Machine, one of the Five Worst Movies I've Ever Seen.
+ The globetrotting storyline, from Sudan to Los Angeles to Toronto to Chicago. Too bad none of it mattered. As a friend I was with mentioned afterwards, "Why bother taking us around to so many cities if we don't even get to see them?"

I Disliked:
- The constant music. When there's subliminal mood music playing during 90% of the movie, you know some other element isn't as strong as it should be.
- The seemingly random decision to make half of the frame blurry in a number of scenes. Did I miss some symbolism there?
- Don Cheadle. It wasn't just that his "accent" was ridiculous, but it was frustrating to see him wasted as a lead here. It's tragic that so many people will have seen this movie and the Ocean's movies, while so few saw him just last year in Reign Over Me and, in an Oscar-worthy performance, Talk to Me.
- A minor error in geography that would have passed by unnoticed had Nachmanoff not made such a big deal out of it. At one point, Samir is being chased in Chicago, IL. Over and over and over we keep hearing that he's headed to an address at 128 South Randolph Avenue. Now it's no surprise that Randolph Avenue doesn't exist in Chicago, but there is a Randolph the nicest part of downtown, far from the projects on the South Side as shown in the movie. I know this is an insane criticism, and I know I had the same issues with 21, but I still think that if a filmmaker is going to drill a location and city into our heads so intentionally, and if the movie is obviously going to be seen by millions of people familiar with a major city, there's no reason to make such egregious geographical errors.

I Hated:
- How predictable the climactic bus scene was. Memo to Jeffrey Nachmanoff: people see a lot of movies, and for those of us who pay attention to detail (as you, directing the picture, also should), way too much was given away by your melodramatic camera work.

Writing - 8
Acting - 8
Production - 8
Emotional Impact - 7
Music - 5
Social Significance - 5

Total: 40/50= 80% = B-

Last Word: I admit that my grievances with Traitor were petty, for the most part, and as an overall illustration of how religious zealots can "use" people to carry out violent acts, it's mostly successful. The real tragedy that I have yet to mention, however, is that the end result is all too familiar: the "peaceful" Muslim ends up being the exception and not the rule. In other words, the movie inadvertently equates Islam with terrorism so many times that the underlying opposite message is basically lost on the viewer. Poor acting and lazy, cliché
d, just plain bad police procedural writing don't help matters.

I wouldn't be so bothered by Traitor's poor quality if it wasn't dealing with such important issues. As it exists now, it will be just another forgettable movie; the lasting images will unfortunately be of violent Muslims. A more even-handed approach, one that actually makes you think without bombarding you with action every 10 minutes, would probably result in a more memorable and much better film. Hmm, yes, maybe something like the vastly superior The War Within.


  1. Jeff Daniels (The Lookout) also shows up and successfully separates himself even further from his now somewhat shocking involvement in Dumb and Dumber.

    You say that as though Dumb and Dumber is bad. Surely you jest.

    Though, don't forget, Daniels was in the appallingly bad Trial and Error with Michael Richards. Ouch.

    You know I liked this more than you (but not a ton more). A few comments:

    Great point about the globetrotting. They seemed to do it way too much anyhow, but it does makes even less sense when it's just a city name up on the screen.

    [Raises hand.] Hey, I saw Talk To Me, too. Gold star, baby. Haven't desired to see Reign Over Me. I'm not a Sandler hater, but he looked annoying, but the larger issue was Mike Binder. That guy's a hack and I can't support him. Yes, I'm still bitter over how bad Mind of the Married Man was...

    Spoiler alert!

    I guess I'm not as good as you. I knew the bus wouldn't go down "as planned," but I figured the bombs would be duds. Close enough, I guess, though I'm shocked that Samir would let them all die as I thought that betrayed his character. Poor innocent bus driver.

    End spoiler. And comment.

  2. I don't mean to say that Dumb and Dumber is bad. I don't even like the thought of that statement, and I'm offended that you would suggest so.

    I just mean that looking back at Daniels' career, Dumb and Dumber is a really bizarre outlier. This is a guy who in recent years has been in movies like Good Night, and Good Luck; Gods and Generals; and The Hours. Aside from RV, most of his roles these days are like The Lookout (in which he stole the show) or Traitor. Hard to believe this is the same guy sitting on that toilet a decade ago.

    Regarding the globetrotting - it's made even worse by the fact that it wasn't even filmed in all of those locations, compared with something like (curse its name) Jumper.

    Glad you saw Talk to Me. Slipped by mostly unnoticed last year. It wasn't Best Picture or anything but it deserved a lot more attention than it received.

    I've actually got a Reign Over Me clip lined up for tomorrow, so sit tight. It's a weepy one and I didn't even like the movie that much, but it's appropriate for the occasion.


    Sure you're as good as me! I admit I also considered your idea, but with the overly long buildup, the close up angles on each of the bombers and the overall lighting, something seemed way too similar. I almost feel like a couple of the passengers could be seen in multiple angles from each person. Either way, you knew Samir's conscience had caught up to him at that point, so nothing crazy was going to go down.

  3. I kind of forgot to review this one. Ok, I didn't forget, so much as put it off until it no longer seemed relevant. Ah well.

    It sounds like I enjoyed it on about the same level as you. The big problem for me with the climax was not its predictability but the fact that it played funny and I don't think it was supposed to.

    Otherwise, Cheadle and Pierce are engaging and for a modest thriller with political overtones, it's perfectly acceptable. Certainly a decent matinee or a DVD rental.

    It gets a couple of bonus points for at least trying to level the playing field in terms of racial stereotypes and I have to admit I was surprised at Jeff Daniels' character arc.

  4. I'm with DVD rental material. And I'm with you on pretty much everything you've said, although I think I enjoyed Cheadle's performance - it was one of the few things I really appreciated about the film.

    As to the ending, I didn't see it coming, but just like The Village, once you've had more than a few seconds to think about you realize how freaking illogical it is. I mean, come on, wouldn't it have been a heckuva lot simpler to just make all the bombs defective? And weren't they supposed to blow themselves up all over the country? So were people traveling hundreds and hundreds of miles? Seriously, if Samir could pull one over on the badguys by sending out the wrong emails, he could have MUCH more easily defused all the bombs. Stupid, stupid, stupid. However, I was quite surprised when Jeff Daniels bought it. I didn't see that one coming.

  5. I don't know, part of me thinks accepting it as a DVD rental is enabling more sub-par movies like this to be made, though I suppose that will happen no matter what.

    Good point about the unintended humor at the end, Craig, especially in the way Cheadle delivers a particular punchline. I think that kind of goes to show that the whole thing wasn't taken too seriously to begin with. But you point out some positives as well, and I can't reject them.


    The Daniels' deal was the one thing that completely surprised me as well. Why Nachmanoff couldn't have done more like that, I don't know. It was real and raw, and then he turned it into a CSI scene when Pearce and McDonough showed up.

    Logic was completely lost in this movie, beyond the scheme that you point out.

    If DHS is so centralized and effective now, why wouldn't the agents have worked together in the first place?

  6. I haven't seen this, but I won't deny I haven't try to either. Your mixed review does lean decidedly to the negative, and no wonder, it seems to personify the malady that afflicts multiplex America, both in content and execution. You round it all up quite well here.

  7. Thank you, Sam. It's currently at a 53 on RT, so there are just as many people who enjoyed as there are those who, like me, thought it fell short. Who knows, you may find something more positive about it than me, but with the number of offerings around you I wouldn't make a special trip to see it.


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