But for a good director, the movie was lost. Which is a damn shame when Don Cheadle's leading your film.

Traitor has so much going for it — decent story, great cast, terrific production values — it's almost criminal that its virtues are undone by a first-time writer-director who neuters his own political thriller of any thrills.

Cheadle plays Samir Horn — a Sudanese-born U.S. operative and devout Muslim — who goes into deep cover to infiltrate an Islamic terrorist cell. Befriending one of its leaders (The Kite Runner's Said Taghmaoui), Samir struggles to prove himself to his enemies while preventing their plans for catastrophic violence. Unfortunately, his assignment requires him to facilitate the very carnage he's attempting to thwart. Worse, because his only outside connection is a CIA contractor named Carter (Jeff Daniels), he draws the attention of two FBI agents (Guy Pierce and Neal McDonough) who may, in their quest to bring him to justice, compromise his mission.

All the elements are in place for a terrific little thriller with a healthy dose of moral and political complexity. The original story, which was created by Steve Martin (yup, that Steve Martin), presents some ingenious and intelligent dilemmas for its heroes. Too bad the script from director Jeffrey Nachmanoff (who penned The Day After Tomorrow) is filled with inscrutably shallow characters and dreadfully uneven dialogue. Tragically, his direction is listless and unfocused, cribbing its mournful world music, political posturing, and globetrotting locales from better films like Syriana and the Bourne series. None of which hides the fact Nachmanoff is unable to establish the most important ingredient in any suspenser: a sense of urgency.

This is probably because Traitor is unsure of what it wants to be. Is it a character-based political drama or plot-driven thriller? You get the sense in Traitor's early (and better) going that Nachmanoff wanted to challenge our ideas about what defines a hero or makes a villain. There's an ambiguity about Samir's early choices that in better hands — say, a '70s Sydney Pollack or Alan Pakula — it could've really left us guessing his motives. He's a potentially intriguing protagonist that, unfortunately, is too restrained and enigmatic to connect with. Cheadle, an excellent actor, gives him thoughtfulness and gravity but is failed by Nachmanoff's cardboard characterization and on-the-nose declarations.

The rest of the cast is similarly good but mostly underutilized. Daniels' role amounts to little more than a cameo. McDonough does his best with a cookie-cutter FBI spin and Aussie Pearce impresses with his Southern-fried accent but doesn't do much. Taghmaoui (who also played a terrorist leader in Vantage Point), on the other hand, is so good you pray he'll soon find work that goes beyond racial profiling.

More successful is Nachmanoff's attempt to portray the roots and complexities of terrorism as more than the raving lunacy of fanatics. There are a few particularly cutting exchanges that lift Traitor above Hollywood's stock bad-guy approach to Islamic extremism, and while the film might not adequately address what ultimately makes a man strap on explosives and kill innocent people, it does give its villains a human face.

Regrettably, cultural sensitivity is not the same as character depth. By the time Traitor's third act rolls around, its plot has twisted into implausible contrivances and an all-too tidy (though not particularly exciting) finale that compromises the very depictions it hoped to redefine. In the end, Nachmanoff's film is all about confused priorities, missed opportunities and unrealized potential. Which isn't unlike our current relationship with the Middle East.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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