Don Cheadle, wiry and wired, delivers an electrifying performance in Traitor as Samir Horn, a devout Muslim born in Sudan, raised in the United States, and apprehended in Yemen while selling explosives to Islamist militants.
Terrorist? Mercenary? Patriot? Samir's actions belie his words of faith, bewildering an FBI counterterrorist team (the laser-eyed duo of Guy Pearce and Neal McDonough) who chase him from San'a to Marseilles to Toronto, where Samir, twistier than a sidewinder, helps orchestrate a dastardly attack on the heartland of the United States.
But on Samir's way, Cheadle's fine work gets defused by Jeffrey Nachmanoff's diffuse direction.
Based on an original story by Steve Martin (yes, that Steve Martin) and Nachmanoff, Traitor is designed to pump the adrenaline as well as the conscience. Observing the conventions of the millennial thriller - opaque central figure, handheld camera, lightning editing - it succeeds in amping up the suspense. Yet it never fully engages the ethical conflicts it raises.
This movie does not know how to move and talk at the same time. It alternates between characters taking action and characters talking on and on about the moral implications of action. I'm all for considering the implications, but as windily written, the talk stops Traitor dead in its crepe-soled tracks.
Though it lacks the panache of Jason Bourne and James Bond, Traitor may be the first post-2001 film not to suggest that all Muslims are alike. Almost certainly it is the first mainstream American film to boast a hero as devoted to his country as he is to Islam.
The film heats up with the friction between Samir and Roy (Pearce), who are, by my count, in only three scenes together, but nicely cast as cunning mouse and sly cat. Both actors, trim and sinewy, move like dancers with their own sweeping pace. Too bad that film editor Billy Fox mercilessly sabotages it by his choppy cuts.
First Nachmanoff frames the geopolitical bout: In one corner, it's the earnest terrorist duo of Samir and Omar (French actor Saïd Taghmaoui); in the other, the wry FBI operatives, Roy and Max (McDonough).
But the contenders never really get the chance to trade punches, so Nachmanoff subverts his tale of political subversion.
Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog, Flickgrrl, at www. philly.com/philly/blogs/flickgrrl.