An espionage picture that wants to be relevant to our times, “Traitor” is about two-thirds of a very effective movie. Maybe it’s good that those two-thirds come at the end of the film.
This one stumbles out of the gate. We meet an international arms supplier, Samir Horn (Don Cheadle), an American Muslim. He is arrested during a deal in the Middle East, and two FBI agents (Guy Pearce and Neal McDonough) try to crack him.
Soon Samir is loose in the world of terrorists again, and the agents are scrambling to find him. It takes awhile for “Traitor” to drop its other shoe about all this, but when it does, it should come as no surprise to most audience members.
These early reels are laced with exchanges about U.S. foreign policy and the misunderstanding of Muslims. Whatever their validity, they make for deadly dialogue, and the movie plays like a well-meaning primer for people who haven’t thought about these things before.
Right about the time a government official (Jeff Daniels) finds himself getting deeper into the story, the film begins to perk up. Maybe it’s just the layers of interlocking deception kicking in, but suddenly the script by director Jeffrey Nachmanoff starts clicking.
Of course, it’s a spy movie. You pretty much have to have layers of interlocking deception. Add a triple-cross or two, and you’ve got yourself a plot.
“Traitor” also distinguishes itself with a brutal attitude about who’s expendable in the cast. That’s cool — at least there are some jolts.
Speaking of the cast, this might be the least macho line-up in any action movie of recent vintage. Cheadle, Pearce and Daniels could just as easily be doing Shakespeare in the Park, although when required to, they bring in the knuckles.
Guy Pearce’s Southern-accented, counterintuitive G-man is intriguing, especially because he spends half the movie defusing his hothead partner (Neal McDonough, trying too hard). He and Cheadle both work in a less-is-more mode that comes across well.
The story idea for “Traitor” was dreamed up by Steve Martin, one of the film’s executive producers. Somehow this is proof that everybody wants to write spy movie.