The eyes are always a giveaway for the fine actor Don Cheadle. Here he is in Traitor playing a bad guy, a renegade Sudanese-born U.S. military operative named Samir Horn who deals arms to Muslim terrorists in Yemen. We know from the start that Samir is himself a devout Muslim and that, as a child, he witnessed his father’s death in a car bombing. So, by the shorthand of mindless stereotyping and movie storytelling, we accept that the foreign-born fellow has reason to become a bad guy, right? Yet one look deep into the star’s gentle eyes, with their perpetual, moist glimmer of humanity, and you know that the traitor’s treachery doesn’t track: Didn’t those peepers recently convey the grace of a good man who saved hundreds in Hotel Rwanda? However far the bad guys get in Traitor — and there’ll be no disclosure here — a Cheadle-wise viewer’s attention is bound to drift, subconsciously waiting for the facts to match the face.
The wait isn’t worth it in this fearmongering, opportunistic political/spy thriller, a slippery entertainment that’s all feints and few punches thrown at a fight card of indistinguishable terrorists, Muslim and otherwise. Strip away the religious and ethnic red herrings devised by writer and first-time director Jeffrey Nachmanoff (he co-wrote the 2004 thriller The Day After Tomorrow) and the movie becomes less concerned with what makes Samir run than with where in the world (literally) Samir is running next, and whether he can be caught before stuff blows up. A sharp FBI agent (Guy Pearce) is on the suspect’s tail, assisted by a partner in the bad-fed role (Neal McDonough, his ice blue stare used, as it often is, to suggest a streak of sadism). Somewhere in the bureaucratic pileup, Jeff Daniels checks in as a shadowy CIA contractor.
Meanwhile, many rainbow-colored actors (Middle Eastern, South Asian, African, ? African-American — it seems to be all the same to central casting in Hollywood) contribute their faces in the cause of a paycheck (good for them) and an agitation of racist paranoia (not good for us). By the time the clock ticks down to the climactic act of terrorism — this time poised to take place on American soil — the makers of Traitor count on audiences to be in a tizzy, distrustful of the stranger in the next seat. They would do better to hope no viewer looks too closely into Cheadle’s eyes, truth-telling orbs that deserve credit here for not rolling. C