There is something inherently bankrupt about making entertainment from the suffering of others, which goes a long way to explain why movies about the war on terrorism are often so terrible. For one thing, such films are almost never concerned with the victims, though there would be no drama or thrills without them. But victims aren't sexy like cops and criminals, so movies like “Traitor,” about an American (Don Cheadle) suspected of aiding a terrorist cell and the upstanding FBI agent (Guy Pearce) on his trail, concern themselves with shopworn formulas familiar to any straight-to-cable action thriller while pretending to delve into current events by hop skipping around the globe.
Dismissing the movie as another “Traffic” aspirant would suffice were it not for the performances of the leads. Pearce and Cheadle are excellent playing opposite each other, despite an often confused story that has them showing up in various locations with little regard for logic. Cheadle plays Samir, an American born in Sudan who returns to the Middle East with unclear motives. We're meant to think he might be aiding terrorists, which is sure what it looks like, and Cheadle exudes the tension of mystery with a seeming effortlessness. His eyes are so constantly probing we might be surprised to learn they close when he sleeps.
If that trademark look is what makes Cheadle one of the most interesting actors in movies today, for Pearce it is the ability to be a chameleon. The Australian actor has carefully and subtly transformed himself into a Southern boy, an introspective, careful one at that, who joined the FBI because there weren't many other career paths catering to his interest in Arabic studies. He doesn't seem to be in law enforcement just to kick butt and take names, but to stop crime and understand how to prevent it. Another fascinating study of contradictions, he's left dangling by a story more interested in thriller tropes. Cheadle's character is likewise brushed aside so the movie can get on with suspense material depressingly familiar in such fare.
Unfortunately a movie can't be recommended for fine performances when they service nonsense. Written and directed by “The Day After Tomorrow” writer Jeffrey Nachmanoff, this sprawling, ambitious movie tries to make a wide range of points, but mostly succeeds in suggesting an international conspiracy for drivel. (PG-13) 113 min. HHIII S