Saturday, September 06, 2008

A word or two in defense of the "Traitor"

Before I say anything about this surprisingly taut and fairly smart thriller, there's some rather big news out there this morning about two high-powered reunions.

First and perhaps more importantly comes word that Columbia Pictures is about to ink both Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire for not only a fourth but also a fifth "Spider-Man" flick, to be shot back-to-back a la "Lord of the Rings."

I've made it clear that like almost everyone in the world I simply hated "Spider-Man 3" as much as possible, but I still think this is a good thing (and surely, with the first three flicks grossing $2.5 BILLION worldwide, Columbia does too.) Everyone deserves a shot at redemption, and since Raimi has already delivered in my opinion the best superhero flick of all time (nothing like a little Saturday morning hyperbole!) in "Spider-Man 2," I'm more than willing to give them another go. (No word yet on whether or not Kirsten Dunst will be back as Mary Jane, but I'd have to imagine she will be, or who the big bad [or two, but please, not three!] will be.)

In other reunion news, director Spike Lee, scribe Terry George and producer Brian Grazer are all apparently on board for an "Inside Man 2," with Lee saying he knows that Clive Owen and Denzel Washington would like to get involved too.

Lee said the story will focus on the same two main characters, Owen's bank robber and Washington's hostage negotiator, but put them in a different "high tension" situation.

So why can't I get terribly excited about that? Well, I guess I just have way too high expectations for Mr. Lee. His movies aren't always perfect, but they are always ambitious and unique, with "Inside Man," his first genre pic, being the first and only of his flicks that I found lacking in both traits.

I'll still give it a chance, but I'm much more excited for Mr. Lee's upcoming "Miracle at St. Anna," which I'm still betting will get him more Oscar love than he's ever encountered before.

But, finally, onto the order of the day, the surprisingly satisfying thriller "Traitor."

It took the presence of Don Cheadle as the star (how in the world do so many movies get made, but he hasn't toplined one since Kasi Lemmons' "Talk to Me"?) to make me give up my short-lived promise to not see any more movies about terrorism. It's not that they particularly scare or unnerve me, but they really have nothing to say about a problem with no clear solutions in sight.

And to it's credit, "Traitor" only briefly pretends to have any answers at all (unlike "Syriana," which thought way too much of itself but was even less enlightening), and instead just delivers a fairly conventional but entertaining spy-style thriller without any of the camera-crazy theatrics of the "Bourne" movies or the time gimmickry of "24," which I gave up on after watching Jack Bauer save the world twice.

At the center is Cheadle's Samir Brown, who is an American armed forces veteran who was born in the Sudan and is now apparently an arms dealer. He sometimes seems to be driven only by who's willing to pay for his explosives and expertise, but at others speaks the rhetoric and performs the acts of a devoted terrorist (I would say "jihadist," but to be honest, I'm not entirely sure what that means.) We never learn too much about Brown's background or how exactly he reached this point, just that he's a devout Muslim.

So, in lesser hands this movie and character would have been yet another noble failure on this subject, but trust me, you won't be able to take your eyes off of Cheadle as he chillingly seems to be plotting with Muslim extremists to strike at America in a way that would truly be a shocking tragedy and disaster. The best scene, his reaction after learning how many people died in an attack on the U.S. consulate in Nice, is just perfect as the turning point for his character's duality.

And that's another way that "Traitor" just works extremely well. It's entertaining but, at the same time, much more realistic and therefore troubling than your standard action thriller. As Samir and his main ground level co-conspirator, played with precision by Saïd Taghmaoui, methodically lay out the groundwork for their plot the tension keeps growing as slowly but surely for the second hour.

So as a late-summer thriller it worked just about perfectly for me, but it's not without its flaws. On the law enforcement side, Guy Pearce gives his all as the better half of the good cop/bad cop FBI team with Neal McDonough, but their characters are fairly generic composites. And the answers seem to come way too easily to an intelligence network that can't even keep track of its own agents. Jeff Daniels, however, is the key and is as cool as usual.

The bottom line: Go see "Traitor" if you want to think a little and enjoy a real thriller with just enough politics to make it wash down smoothly. And as everyone surely already knows, Don Cheadle is just the man!


Bob said...

I'm actually a really big fan of "Inside Man," but a sequel? I don't think it's such a good idea.
As for shooting two movies at the same time..."The Matrix Reloaded" and "Revolutions" were shot simultaneously. "Pirates 2" and "3" were shot simultaneously...Granted, Raimi's a heck of a lot better than the Wachowski's or Gore Verbinski but I'm just sayin'... And "Spider-Man 3" still sucks.

Reel Fanatic said...

You're certainly right that there are dangers in shooting them back to back, Bob, (the "Matrix" sequels being a great example) but I'm willing to give Raimi a break for now until he delivers another stinker

Ashok said...

"Traitor" for me ran very ordinary and hence a run of the mill territory. I guess it played down way more than it should have because as I said my review, the showtime mini series "Sleeper Cell" had it done really well, complicated and realistically better.

Reel Fanatic said...

Perhaps I appreciated "Traitor" more because I don't have Showtime and have never seen "Sleeper Cell," Ashok .. But I have little doubt that given the wider story possibilities of a series, they got into more depth than "Traitor" did

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