With its genuine concerns for the dangers posed by fanatics on Islam's fringe and its desire to dramatize a heroic character on screen, "Traitor" is primed to appeal simultaneously to the realist and the idealist in the viewer. Perhaps this is what's always battling inside the movies that Hollywood makes about war: To show it as it is, or as one would like it to be. By placing a Sudanese-born, Chicago-raised devout Muslim and US Special Forces vet (played by Don Cheadle) at the center of a terror plot in the American heartland, "Traitor" tries to squeeze it all into one nifty, ideological-religious package.
Who would have expected that such a premise would be dreamt up by Steve Martin? Apparently tapping his inner Robert Ludlum, Martin (who takes only an executive producer credit) introduces the idea of a Muslim moderate battling Muslim extremists – all the while unsure that his adopted US is doing the right thing. It's a curious new twist in the way that American pop culture responds to the so-called "war on terror." Thus far, though, from "The Kingdom" to "In the Valley of Elah" (with David Simon's "Generation Kill" for HBO the sole exception), the war hasn't gone too well on the big screen or small, and "Traitor" doesn't improve the situation.
Cheadle's Samir Horn has been working so long for the Special Forces in Afghanistan (and beyond) that he seems to have been reabsorbed into the culture he left after his father was killed in a 1978 bombing in Sudan. After being caught with a suspected cell trying to purchase bombmaking material, Samir comes face to face with dogged FBI agents Roy Clayton (Guy Pearce) and Max Archer (Neal McDonough), who know his past, but may not know everything about his present.
Writer-director Jeffrey Nachmanoff (writer of the risible "The Day After Tomorrow") conspires to place the viewer in Clayton's and Archer's fog of war, following along with them as they pursue Samir – their only suspect in a grave-sounding terror plot – while also sticking closely to Samir as he bonds with Omar (Saïd Taghmaoui) and his circle of jihadist terrorists.
The game that Nachmanoff is playing is too obvious to ever be entirely intriguing or shocking, especially by casting the always likable Cheadle in the role of mass bomber. Cheadle is the right man for a character who observes daily prayers and knows his Koran, and who also knows how to throw a punch and slip through the FBI's tightening net. Still, as an actor Cheadle's eyes are never so cold and stern that his characters can switch off their humanity, so it defies credibility that his Samir could be so knee-deep in evil.
Cheadle's innate goodness is the film's main dilemma, since the truth under the story's surface (which we won't reveal here) can be contained for only so long, and with ever-diminishing dramatic returns. Nachmanoff is no Tony Scott ("Déjà Vu," "Domino," "Man on Fire"), and in his first film behind the camera does only the basics of what are expected from a globe-hopping, physical, high-tension thriller. Competence is fine, but imagination is what's really demanded from such material, and Nachmanoff's remarkably dull-headed way with dialogue is certainly no help. Being told, point-blank, that somebody is a hero is nothing like seeing it. Grade: C (Rated PG-13 for intense violent sequences, thematic material, and brief language.)
• The Monitor's regular film critic, Peter Rainer, is on vacation.