When Hollywood celebrities use their career to make statements about socioeconomic issues, political controversies, or international crises or conflicts, the results can range from commendable to disingenuous and self-serving. But while most actors tend to preen and pose for the camera, some manage to bring attention to an issue without allowing their persona to overshadow their cause. With projects like ‘Hotel Rwanda,’ ‘Crash,’ and ‘Darfur Now,’ Academy Award-nominated actor Don Cheadle has done just that. His latest politically-charged vehicle, ‘Traitor,’ examines the various motivations that fuel a terrorist’s desire to use violence to facilitate change.
In ‘Traitor,’ Cheadle plays Samir Horn, a devout Muslim working in Yemen who sells equipment and his own bomb-making expertise to a group of terrorists hell-bent on making a calculated, multi-pronged strike in the heart of the United States. During a brief stint in an Yemeni prison, he befriends a man in the same organization named Omar (Said Taghmaoui) and makes his way overseas with his new colleagues. Hot on his trail are a pair of FBI agents -- a cautious boy scout named Roy Clayton (Guy Pearce) and a hands-on hothead named Max Archer (Neal McDonough) -- who are determined to capture Samir, stop whatever he and his fellow zealots are planning, and discover the whereabouts of a terrorist mastermind who has eluded them as well.
It’s tough buying Cheadle as a villain -- his portrayal of a terrorist sympathizer distracted me to no end throughout the first act of the film. To my relief, the talented actor plays every moment with a conflicted, is-he-or-isn’t-he reluctance that allows writer/director Jeffrey Nachmanoff to toy with his character’s duality and ambiguity. The entire film becomes a bizarre whodunit in which the audience continually has to unravel Cheadle’s actions and behavior. Is he really helping Islamic fundamentalists kill innocent people or is he secretly an undercover agent in the employ of the US government? While the answer will be obvious to anyone paying attention long before the film offers any definitive revelations, it gives Nachmanoff and Cheadle a chance to delve into the collective psyche of a terrorist organization. Better still, Taghmaoui’s deft performance as a mildly sympathetic mass murderer serves as a counterweight to every question the director and actor pose about terrorism and its converts, giving the film the opportunity to ask some very difficult questions.
Despite quite a few intriguing character beats, intense confrontations, and serious soul searching, the film ultimately falls in line with every other cliché thriller on the block. Aside from Cheadle and Taghmaoui, every sneer-sporting baddie on the screen is a poorly developed, stereotypical foot soldier that seems like window dressing compared to the two leads. More distressingly, the terrorist leaders could easily fill any number of roles in a 007 flick -- they don’t have anything interesting to say, their decisions are based on the needs of the plot rather than logic, and they devolve from evil geniuses to flagrant sitting ducks whenever it’s time for the heroes to trot into town. Worst of all, Pearce and McDonough’s characters don’t exhibit the emotional complexity of Cheadle or Taghmaoui’s terrorists, making their scenes flat and… frankly… boring. Pearce is usually such an interesting performer, but here he’s relegated to a no-frills role that any other actor on the planet could have handled.
Don’t get me wrong, ’Traitor’ isn’t a complete waste of time. As thrillers go, it’s a decent (albeit predictable) thinking-man’s actioner that delivers a pair of intriguing characters and memorable performances. I just wish the rest of the movie lived up to the bar set by Cheadle and Taghmaoui. Ah well, give the flick a rent and see what you think.
While its filmmakers have readily embraced the overblown whites and oppressive shadows that have dominated similar films of late, ‘Traitor’s 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer faithfully renders its source with striking contrast and impressive detail. While colors are generally washed out throughout the film, skintones look (relatively) natural, primaries are bold, and blacks are deep and inky. Likewise, delineation can be unforgiving at times but, more often than not, dank cargo holds and dimly lit interiors look great. More importantly, textures are sharp, edges are well defined, and fine detail is crisp and revealing. It’s also worth noting that I didn’t catch any instances of artifacting, crush, edge enhancement, or noise reduction.
Complaints? The darkest scenes aren’t always as resolved as those on the best BD transfers on the market, and faint digital noise popped up from time to time to distract me from an otherwise clear image. Still, these issues amounted to minor mishaps in a noteworthy presentation. Fans of the film should be more than pleased with the transfer, its quality, and the obvious upgrade it offers over the concurrently-released standard DVD.
The Blu-ray edition of ‘Traitor’ includes a rousing Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround track that captures the bombast of the film’s action sequences and the subtleties of its varied locales. Dialogue is clean, intelligible, and perfectly prioritized, even when gunfire and footchases explode onto the scene. The rear speakers are tasked with quite a bit of activity and do a fine job of creating convincing acoustics for interior shots and dense ambience for more open outdoor environments. LFE support isn’t as aggressive as I expected, but nevertheless adds weight and presence to voices, vehicles, and explosions. A particular attack on a construction site sounds more than impressive and, even though it’s heard from a relative distance, it makes a legitimate impact. Best of all, dynamics are strong and stable, allowing the rumble of debris and the wheen of ricocheting bullets to sound equally impressive.
If I have any issue with the audio it’s that directionality isn’t as fine-tuned as it should be. Effects occasionally sound anchored to the front of the soundfield when they should be present throughout. While it isn’t pervasive enough to result in an entirely front-heavy presentation, it still distracted this audiophile on more than one occasion. Minor quibbles aside, ‘Traitor’s TrueHD track effortlessly enhances the film’s visuals, tone, and atmosphere, all while delivering a cohesive, stable, and fairly precise presentation.
’Traitor’ arrives on Blu-ray with the same supplemental package as its standard DVD counterpart. Granted, there isn’t a lot of behind-the-scenes material on the disc beyond an audio commentary, but the fact that the video content is presented in high definition is a plus.
’Traitor’ never becomes the complex psychological thriller it desperately wants to be, but it does boast a pair of fine performances from Don Cheadle and Said Taghmaoui. Thankfully, the Blu-ray edition of the film offers a substantial step up from the standard DVD with its excellent video transfer and a proficient TrueHD audio track. The downside is that the disc has a limited (but succinct) supplemental package whose greatest asset is a rather dry commentary. All things considered, ‘Traitor’ is good enough to warrant a look, but will probably leave some shrugging their shoulders and wondering why Cheadle couldn’t spend his time more wisely.