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Starz / Anchor Bay // R // December 19, 2008
List Price: $29.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted December 19, 2008 | E-mail the Author

The Film:

In Traitor, we're introduced to Samir Horn (Don Cheadle, Hotel Rwanda), a bona-fide man of Allah with a past harsh enough to send anyone into a spiteful adulthood. Even in the opening shots, the mystery behind his motivations and influences are suspect; concurrently, as with any film with single-word titles like Deception or Repulsion, a tone gets sets in stone even with the simple scenes of a young Sudanese boy reading the Qur'an. When an explosion rattles both his nerves and ours, it serves as a catalyst that would ignite the energetic flow behind Jeffrey Nachmanoff's globe-trotting terrorist thriller. With pounding intensity, Traitor harnesses this explosive rhythm and runs with it to create an outstanding, unbearably tense picture riddled with minute socio and theological messages.

Equal parts espionage and police/government procedural, Traitor meticulously glues together influences from both Infernal Affairs and the Bourne series to craft its hefty international outreach. Following a botched arms deal in Yemen (actually, the sale of igniters) with a Middle Eastern terrorist organization, now ex-US Special Forces operative Samir finds himself locked in prison with the same men that believe he sabotaged the deal by contacting the authorities. What they don't realize is that Samir is receiving equal amounts of heat from the U.S. Government for his involvement with the organization, receiving the "hard word" from agents Roy Clayton (Guy Pearce, Memento) and Max Archer (Neal McDonough, Band of Brothers) to reveal his cards. But when the head of the radical Muslim organization orchestrates a jail break, Samir has little option than to feed off his budding relationship with him and flee the scene with his newly befriended arsonists. Of course, it all seems too simple to be coincidence.

As to be expected, the big trick underneath Traitor's sleeve is the mystery involving Samir's intentions. When he goes in for his first deal, the answer seems obvious; however, as more and more leaks out about his personal beliefs and activities since the mid '80s, it's hard to make heads or tails of his character. Part of this stems from Nachmanoff's nails-on-nerves script, which blends the narrative's immediacy with timely, significant dialogue. He takes the more theatrical road when illustrating plot points such as the initial interrogation scene between Samir, Clayton, and Archer, as well as with an intricate motivational segment where Samir and his new colleagues recruit martyrs for their cause. In effect, it creates a breathless atmosphere that also allows for an undercurrent of true messages to coast underneath all the buzzing hubbub.

It's obvious that Traitor is writer/director Nachmanoff's baby through and through, as it breathes with emotion and exhaustive tension that ceases to let up -- even in those revelatory moments near the core of the film where you might expect the energy to taper off. What's interesting about his setting is the surprising lack of political motives behind his film. He incorporates little parallels between the superpowers, sure, like when he splices together footage of both the U.S. Government and the Muslim organization conducting background checks on Samir in near-identical fashion. It pivots more, however, on the critique revolving around mankind's decisions underneath the eyes of God. Along with that, it subtly pounds away on the idea that these extremists are misinterpreting, and are ultimately misaligned with, true theological messages. The only misstep that might separate Traitor from more universal appeal comes in the heavy tone that results from this triad of influence -- government, radicalism, and religion -- and the way it whips together a thick cloud of tension and bubbling emotion that's likely to both strike chords and rub some the wrong way.

But the big success -- as well as the main reason to soak in this haughty bundle of nerves -- is Don Cheadle's portrayal of Samir, which will certainly become on of the more understated and underappreciated performances from 2008. In a filmic environment where the flip-flopping espionage narrative echoes out like a broken record, the Reign Over Me and Crash actor has infused his spy-like character with a different sort of energy. Samir's certainly aggressive and exhibits his trained arsonist and combat roots, but it's the resolve behind his directives that makes him a compelling character. If there's anybody that can portray a semi-likable "everyman" wrapped up in the dangerous exploits of Muslim terrorism, it'd be the nuanced Cheadle; the ways that he carries his God-driven character through the underbelly of radicalism is sublime. He, in ways, mirrors Chiwetel Ejiofor's performance in Dirty Pretty Things, only instead of Ejiofor's clear good-doer disposition, we can't comfortably outline Samir's motives between Cheadle's outstanding portrayal and Nachmanoff's tightly-etched script.

For all intents and purposes, the first and seconds acts are completely about Samir, his history, and the world's interpretation of his presence. When his activities come to fruition and start to closely endanger society, however, we begin to see further glimpses into the U.S. Government's operations with Pearce's Clayton as top banana. Along with Death Defying Acts, Pearce has chosen roles this year that have been central to storylines while sidestepping the label of being the "lead". Here, he flexes his character actor muscle as the Southern-drawn son of a Baptist minister with plenty of attitude. He sucks in all the attention revolving around the government-pivoting sequences, instead making these bustling procedural bits more about Clayton's differing "man of God" persona trying to dissect the actions of another as he hunts down Samir. Nachmanoff knew what he was doing when he built these two characters -- creating an entity seeped in terrorist activity that the audience can't help but like, while also constructing a U.S. agent that breeches close to being an anti-villain in his angered intensity. Once again, it's a mix-and-match game that all comes back to making head or tails about Samir.

And it all pays off when Traitor detonates near the film's core, building into a breakneck political and terrorist conflagration that does nothing but flare upwards during its big revelatory peak. After that, Nachmanoff lets his film coast on cinematographer J. Michael Muro's starkly-photographed current of explosions, backstabs, and labyrinthine exposition as the terrorist network's cards all spill on the table. Their tactics tap into the latent fears of another post-9/11 attack on American soil, which will prove to be a plot element that'll heighten the love-or-hate sentiments about its subject matter. No matter which side you fall on, it's hard to deny the thickness of Traitor's material -- which will severely limit the return value to its deadweight intensity. It's a great film about a very touchy subject, one that gives up possession of a clearly-defined political message in the process of building an unrelentingly engrossing thriller. Though we're talking about a film that may spurn more awareness about the realism behind the tactics used by terrorists to amalgamate to their environments, Nachmanoff's film foremost revolves around being both a thoroughly compelling character study and an equally-matched gauntlet of espionage stratagems.

The DVD:

Anchor Bay has brought Traitor in a nicely-designed standard DVD presentation with coverart that carries over from the slick theatrical poster. It comes adorned with a glossy, embossed slipcover with disc labeling that replicates a portion of the cover's artwork. No insert has been included, differing from Anchor Bay's normal repertoire, which has instead been replaced with a coupon for Righteous Kill and Surfer, Dude.

Video and Audio:

Early word struck that Anchor Bay's transfer for Traitor would carry an alternate aspect ratio than its 2.35:1 scope theatrical distribution, instead providing a presentation that would "fill up the screen" to full capacity. This happens to be true, confirmed by the groan-worthy "This Film Has Been Modified From Its Original Version" message at the start of the film, as Traitor spreads across 16x9 displays in a 1.78:1 anamorphic presentation -- differing from the 2.35:1 Blu-ray image. At times, it's hard to determine whether some shots were cropped from the theatrical aspect ratio or not; however, it is very clear that most of Traitor displays an expanded negative that shows more material at the top and bottom of the screen than its theatrical counterpart. Whether this was the intention of director Nachmanoff or a decision in-house on Anchor Bay's part is still yet to be concretely determined (waiting on verification).

From DVD Transfer:

From "Action!" Featurette:

Considering this, I have to say that I'm pretty impressed at the way Traitor looks in this new framing. The film's image has much more room to breathe, which makes certain scenes feel a lot less claustrophobic. It also allows for more of the location scenery to be seen, though certain instances like the brawl scene when Samir first gets into the prison seem a little off when compared to the nicely-captured theatrical image. Regarding the digital quality, the print looks fantastic. There's a healthy dosage of detail and color saturation to be seen, especially potent in facial close-ups and backdrop textures. Digital noise does pop up here and there, at times to problematic degrees in more moderately-lit scenes. But even while keeping a stern eye out, I detected little to no noticeable edge enhancement. Overall, Traitor offers a pleasing, sharp presentation for its questionably framed image.

Audio wise, there's less to debate: Traitor's Dolby Digital 5.1 track packs plenty of punch and tons of melodically-driven attitude, but suffers in communicating the minor details. Unlike the back packaging states, there is NOT a DTS track present on the disc. Instead, we're given this score-heavy Dolby track that really accentuates the rhythmic, internationally-infused music to great degrees. As to be expected, there are quite a few loud blasts in Traitor as well -- from the prison break explosions to a myriad of terrorist attacks. Each one spreads to each spectrum of the track, both tapping the upper frequencies and the boisterous LFE levels. However, vocal clarity gets a little iffy, especially when heavily-accented individuals begin to speak -- which led me to rewind the film once or twice just to catch the lines. It's a loud, strong treatment with a few refinement issues. Optional English SDH and Spanish subtitles are available, but this Dolby track is the only film language track available.

Special Features:

Commentary with Director Nachmanoff and Producer/Actor Cheadle
Awesome track. After hearing commentary after commentary, it becomes obvious that the rhythm between information and entertainment is a hard balance to strike. Boy, do Cheadle and Nachmanoff nail it though. They're very laid back and a blast to listen to, but also exceedingly informative regarding shooting locations, alternate footage, and actor anecdotes. There's only a few spans where the two neglect to say anything, but most of the time it's so they can allow more dialogue-driven scenes to play out before commenting on them (like the scenes with Jeff Daniels near the central point in the film). Moreover, I thoroughly enjoyed the references made to utilizing Crash director of photography J. Michael Muro's impeccable talents.

Featurettes (~ 10:00):
Two featurettes appear on this disc, one entitled Action! that revolves around filming the more action-based sequences, and the other entitled International Espionage that covers the shooting locations that the crew ventured to -- or made certain areas "appear" like their shooting locales. While Action blends behind-the-scenes footage of combat preparation and explosives work with shots from the film, International Espionage sticks to off-set shots. Neither delve too deep into the production values of the picture, though they do include interview footage with Nachmanoff, Cheadle, and Pearce that can be interesting.

Also included is a Trailer, which is anamorphic and framed in 1.78:1.

Final Thoughts:

In an suspense cinema world dominated by the Bourne, 007, and Mission Impossible franchises, it's refreshing to see Jeffrey Nachmanoff think outside the box for his high-concept espionage thriller, Traitor. It touches on subject matter that's still a fresh wound -- meaning Middle Eastern terrorist organizations with an eye on America -- but it maintains a certain stature that keeps it from inching too close to political comment. However, Nachmanoff still incorporates compelling cross-referential ideas regarding the political spectrum and theology in his feature, all highlighted by strong performances from both Don Cheadle and Guy Pearce. It's a well-photographed, tense flick with a subtle dash of thought for good measure.

Anchor Bay's DVD, however, is a mixed bag. Light on the supplements -- though it contains an outstanding commentary from Cheadle and Nachmanoff -- it relies on the visual and aural presentation to be worth its weight. Which brings us to the decision to deviate from Traitor's 2.35:1 aspect ratio to the now-standardized 1.78:1 screen size, which appears to be an attractive decision from me as long as Nachmanoff had some hand in it. Whether you prefer the theatrical presentation or this new framing, the digital quality is still quite good for this film, making both the DVD and the film very firmly Recommended.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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