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Our review of Traitor, published January 7th, 2009, is also available.
The truth is complicated.
Although I read a lot of spy novels as a teenager, I decided young that I would never get involved in the intelligence community. I had two reasons for this decision. First, it's almost impossible to know who you actually work for, if that tiny, unknown branch of the CIA is actually part of the CIA, or really just a front for another country's intelligence offices. Maybe if you drove yourself to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and met the president himself you might be sure, but who wants to deal with that level of paranoia? The other reason is that it seems that individual intelligences officers don't get much of a big-picture view of their operations. Saving one person might lead to a hundred other deaths, while killing fifty people could save fifty thousand. I don't need that kind of job pressure. Traitor (Blu-ray) is the kind of intelligence thriller that understands these concerns and weaves them into the fabric of a story about the perils and pitfalls of the War on Terror.
Facts of the Case
Samir Horn (Don Cheadle, Boogie Nights) is a former U.S. Army Special Forces explosives expert who watched his father blown up as a young man in the Sudan. After a tour in Afghanistan, Samir decided to embrace his Muslim heritage and stay to fight with the Mujahideen. After several years, he finds himself in Yemen selling explosives and his expertise to a group called Al-Nathir who are responsible for a string of bombings across Europe. Before the deal can go down, FBI agents Clayton (Guy Pearce, Memento) and Archer (Neal McDonough, 88 Minutes) arrest Samir and his accomplices. Despite attempts by the agents to convince Horn to come back to the U.S. side, Samir goes to prison where he befriends Omar (Saïd Taghmaoui, Hidalgo, one of Al-Nathirs lieutenants. Omar orchestrates an escape and Samir becomes embroiled in Al-Nathir's plot to detonate bombs on U.S. soil. Meanwhile, Agent Clayton investigates Samir and the possibility emerges that he's not as straightforwardly terrorist as he seems.
Traitor rests squarely on the broad shoulders of Don Cheadle, and he delivers with gusto. Although the plot is occasionally convoluted, Cheadle is unswerving in showing his character's faith and willingness to die for his beliefs. It's a quiet, intense performance (the kind that is often ignored when it's time to hand out those little gold statues) that relies on what Cheadle doesn't say as much as what he does. After his experiences on Hotel Rwanda and Crash (undoubtedly helped by his own humanitarian efforts), Cheadle has learned how to translate suffering to his audience. The disbelief in his eyes and the wrinkle of his brow convey the magnitude of his sorrow towards the horrible world around him. This turn makes his job that much more important. Because of Cheadle's subdued performance, Guy Pearce gets to go a little wild. He plays a by-the-book FBI agent, and, although he's not as histrionic as many actors have been in that role, his Clayton is a more boldly drawn character than Cheadle's. My only complaint about the acting is that the film never gave these two heavyweights enough opportunities to be in the same room. The early scene where the two meet crackles with energy, and the film would have benefited from more of that kind of fire.
This Blu-ray disc is almost as strong as the acting in the film. The AVC encoded 2.40:1 widescreen images is pretty detail-heavy throughout the film, with facial expressions and some of the location vistas being particular highlights. Whites are a little blown out, which is intentional, and blacks are generally strong throughout. I noticed a bit of noise in the darker scenes occasionally, but it wasn't enough to be really distracting. The film's slightly gritty look keeps the disc from reference quality, but it's a strong transfer. The audio is equally impressive. Numerous instances of gunfire and explosions are crisp and clear, with the low end appropriately earth-shaking. Dialogue was easy to hear and was well-balanced with the louder aspects of the mix.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I enjoyed Traitor while I was watching it, but it's a hard film to recommend. Although I appreciate its generally skeptical stance towards the War on Terror, it really doesn't have anything new to say about Muslim-American relations. On the other hand, the performances by Cheadle and Pearce are so intense that it's difficult to see the film as just a piece of thriller fluff. The film is left in the awkward position of being too serious to be taken lightly, and too light to be taken seriously. Much of the rest of the film is in limbo as well. For instance, there's enough technical knowledge to bore the uninterested (the word Semtex gets thrown around like a product placement), but not enough to interest the Guns 'n' Ammo crowd. The performances by Cheadle and Pearce are easy to recommend, but I'd suggest a rental for all but their most diehard fans.
As for the Blu-ray itself, it could use a lot more in the supplements department. The commentary with Cheadle and director Nachmanoff is a bit light on detail and too often falls into silence. The other two supplements contain less than 10 minutes total on the film's stunts and locations. Some more information about Islamic groups, international terrorism, or even more input from the actors would have all been greatly appreciated. The final "extra" is a digital copy of the film on the second disc. I doubt I'm alone in thinking that including a digital copy of the film hardly qualifies the release for the "Special Edition" title.
Traitor is buoyed by strong performances from all the actors involved, but it fails to provide a new, compelling premise for these fascinating characters. Although the film deals with some serious issues, its perspective is fairly shallow, but not shallow enough to make the film popcorn entertainment. The technical presentation of this Blu-ray is top notch, but the supplements aren't quite up to snuff. Fans of the actors involved are urged to give this one a rental, others are advised that the film may disappoint.
Traitor is guilty of failing to utilize the awesome onscreen talents of Don Cheadle and Guy Pearce to tell a compelling story.
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