For my money, Don Cheadle is one of the most underappreciated talents that Hollywood has going today. An Oscar nominee for his work in Hotel Rwanda, he's also done outstanding work in films like Boogie Nights, Crash, Traffic, but he's become increasingly known for his humanitarian work, raising money and increasing awareness for the Darfur crisis with the help of other celebrities. His work both off and on screen is to his credit, and there's a higher karmic spot reserved for him. Sometimes though, he falls under the trap where everyone can make a bad acting choice.
Take the choice of doing this here film Traitor, which was written and directed by Jeffrey Nachmanoff. When last we saw Nachmanoff's work on screen, it was in The Day After Tomorrow, when the cold was chasing people. Things are slightly more plausible here, as Cheadle plays Samir Horn, a former Special Forces soldier now currently residing in Yemen. Back in America, the FBI and its agent-in-charge Roy Clayton (Guy Pearce, The Proposition) and his partner Max (Neal McDonough, Minority Report) come to the country and arrest Samir and his business partner Omar (Said Taghmaoui, Three Kings), and try to get them to surrender the names of their associates and bosses, but fail in the effort, so they are jailed in Yemen, while the Feds go back to the states to try and figure out what their next move will be.
For Samir, his next move is clear. Omar, who had initial doubts about Samir's motives, introduces him to many various members of the terrorist cell that Omar is a member of. For the viewer, we see how Samir is lured into the cell, and how some of the more intellectual members of it bend and shape Islam to their personal convenience, to "hide" from their enemies. Meanwhile, Roy and Max try to find out who's responsible for a bombing at an American Consulate in France. As it turns out, it's Samir, but not for the motivations that one would presume. The film becomes a race against time in several areas; for the Feds to capture Samir, their presumed suspect in the bombing, while Samir attempts to conduct a much larger operation with the help of his bosses, but to do it in America. Things build up quite nicely in a taut and suspenseful third act.
With most of the film being carried by Cheadle though, the film tends to not spend enough time on his past and what brought him to his particular point in life. It also tends to not spend enough time in the investigation by the Feds, and almost seems to come to Samir too arbitrarily. Think of the film as wanting to be taken as seriously as Syriana, except with not as well-written a script or without the star treatment. This is no fault of Cheadle's, as with Samir, he plays a man whose devotion to Islam is pure and untainted, and those who have been on both sides of the "War on Terror" have tended to bastardize religion in order to advance a separate agenda. The problem in Nachmanoff's storytelling and direction is that the other aspects of the film don't seem to push with the force that one would expect to communicate this. So it winds up becoming a mix of Syriana and The Departed, with a little bit of the Bourne films tossed in here and there. I see what Traitor is attempting to say, I just don't think it's saying it very well.
The 2.40 widescreen presentation of Traitor is done with the MPEG-4 AVC, and it looks very good. Facial detail can be made out clearly in many of Cheadle's tight shots, and the slightly washed out whites are an intentional choice by Nachmanoff, reproduced very well. There's not a wide color palette to enjoy here, but on wider shots like the one in Washington D.C. early in the film, you can see a wide range of detail in the frame, and in some of the less stylistic shots, the blacks are straightforward with very little crushing. Image detail isn't consistent through the film, but overall this looks good.
The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack (the only option to speak of) is also pleasantly impressive, starting early on during the raid of the arms sale. Gunfire peppers in every speaker and does so smartly, explosions pack a low-end punch when called upon, and directional activity is aplenty in the action sequences. These are good things, because the dialogue levels are low, resulting in some compensation by the user. This frustration aside, Traitor is good but not great sonically.
They're OK, but they're hardly special. Cheadle and Nachmanoff team up for a commentary that's not nearly as informative as I was hoping. They cover how some of the shots in the production were done, and talk about shooting internationally, but Cheadle's always been a soft-spoken participant, and the track eventually devolves into a lot of watching of the film in the second and third acts, despite Nachmanoff's attempts to keep things jovial. You won't get anything out of this track. The two production futurities are just as fruitless, with "International Espionage" (5:13) covering the foreign shoot, and "Action!" (4:39) on the stunts, but these two pieces are long highlight reels with an occasional five to ten second sound bite tossed in. Trailers for several Anchor Bay/Starz films (including this one) are the only things left on this BD-Live enabled puppy, aside from a digital copy of the film.
I didn't come into Traitor with any preconceived notions, and I'm certainly not leaving with any. Cheadle remains an excellent constant in acting, as he portrays a character caught by both sides of a battle that's being fought. It's worth checking out for his performance, as well as a decent story that becomes better as it goes, save for a convoluted ending. Technically it's a solid disc, but the supplements suck, so I'd limit yourself to renting it, nothing more.