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Thursday, December 11, 2008

TRAITOR -- DVD review by porfle

With two of my favorite actors in the lead roles, TRAITOR (2008) starts off with a couple of points in its favor right off the bat. And with a cracking script that sizzles like a burning fuse all the way to the exciting conclusion, this action-filled and intelligent political thriller kept me interested from beginning to end.

Don Cheadle brings his usual soulful quality and depth to the role of Samir Horn, a Sudanese-born Muslim selling explosives to Arab terrorists in Yemen. After FBI "advisors" help local police bust one of their deals and send the lot to prison, Samir befriends one of the terrorists, Omar (Saïd Taghmaoui), and is included in the group's daring prison escape. He then becomes a trusted member of the group, and his knowledge of explosives makes him an integral part of their plan to use sleeper agents in the US to blow up thirty passenger-filled buses simultaneously on Thanksgiving Day.

Meanwhile, FBI agents Clayton (Guy Pearce) and Archer (Neal McDonough) are hot on Samir's trail as they try to track down the terrorists and stop whatever dastardly plan they're setting into motion. Complicating things are the presence of an information-leaking double agent within their own ranks and the fact that a high-ranking agent named Carter (Jeff Daniels) has his own secret scheme for catching the terrorists, with the help of an inside man. Is it Samir?

I was surprised to find that this story was written by Steve Martin (yes, that Steve Martin), who apparently has a flair for political intrigue and action-suspense that I was unaware of. The fact that the terrorists aren't portrayed as snarling stereotypes gives added realism to the story--Omar seems to genuinely believe in what he's doing and his warm friendship with Samir makes him an almost sympathetic character. (Not quite, though, since he's still a terrorist whose goal is to slaughter dozens of innocent people.) Cheadle is able to keep us guessing about Samir and whether he's really one of the bad guys, or else has his own hidden agenda--even when we see him plant a bomb that kills eight people. There's a kind of DONNIE BRASCO quality to his story that makes for several scenes of gripping suspense.

The rest of the cast is excellent, especially Guy Pearce as Agent Clayton. He doesn't get a lot of screen time or character development, but Pearce is a fascinating actor to watch as usual. Neal McDonough is effective as his less-experienced partner, who provides most of what little humor there is. Jeff Daniels (PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO, DUMB AND DUMBER) does a good job as the furtive Carter, whose plan to stop the terrorists may be a little too close to the vest for his own good.

Director and co-scripter Jeffrey Nachmanoff's visual style is lean and efficient, keeping the story moving along smoothly with few distractions and staging the action scenes in a hard-hitting and straightforward manner. The movie looks good and boasts several international locations including Morocco, France, London, Canada, and Chicago. Mark Kilian's musical score is a beautiful mix of electronic New Age and Middle Eastern influences.

The DVD is 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen with Dolby surround 5.1 sound, both of which are fine. English and Spanish subtitles are available. Bonus features include an entertaining commentary from director Nachmanoff and star Cheadle, two brief featurettes entitled "Action! The Stunts and Special Effects of TRAITOR" and "International Espionage: An In-Depth Look at TRAITOR's Exotic Locations", and a trailer.

I've given away about as much of the story as you get in the trailer--any more would be too much. But there's a lot more going on than you might originally suspect, and it's all pretty exciting. Before it's over, there are thirty terrorists on buses, all waiting to set off their explosives at a certain time, while the FBI agents race against the clock to keep it from happening. And, true to the title, Don Cheadle's Samir is definitely a TRAITOR--but to which side?

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