Overture Films
At Quality 16 and Showcase

4 out of 5 stars

It’s often said that great actors disappear into the roles they play. But it’s always something richer and more authentic with Don Cheadle.

Cheadle seems to own his every role (rather than the other way around) to the point where you’d swear he’s not “acting” at all. From his Oscar-nominated turn in “Hotel Rwanda” to the recent “Talk to Me,” Cheadle carries movies by ensuring they feature a character whose shadow reaches well beyond the confines of the screen. That powerful ability shines spectacularly in “Traitor,” a solid action film made superb by a stirring, ambitious and classic Cheadle performance.

Cheadle plays Samir Horn, an American national whose Sudanese roots link him closely to Islam and possibly some terrorist groups as well. I keep those two concepts separate for reasons you either already understand or have chosen not to understand, but it is important to note that the film keeps them separated too. Indeed, that oft-confused duality is a key part of the mystery of Samir, a rogue arms dealer who might be called a traitor at first glance.

Arrested and beaten for allegedly supplying detonators to a terrorist bombing, Samir manages to escape his captors and continue on the complex path he has chosen for himself. Plot-wise, that path features Jeff Daniels (“The Squid and the Whale”) and at least one brilliant, jaw-dropping twist. More abstractly, however, the film deserves even more credit for such a deep portrayal of a complex human being.

Words like “authentic” are as useless as criticisms like “unpatriotic” when describing the full effect of who Samir is and what his story says of our country. Samir is shown as a devout, conscience-driven Muslim, with Cheadle often breaking into Arabic quotes from the Quran. This is by no means at odds with everything else Samir is: black, American, compassionate and betrayed (more might be said here of his parallel loyalties, but that ventures into spoiler territory).

His pursuers — two straight-laced FBI agents played by Guy Pearce (“Factory Girl”) and Neal McDonough (“88 Minutes”) — are also Godly, conscience-driven men. Such an analogy has been presented often since Sept. 11, but never with so much purpose and awareness. When Pearce’s character compares suicide bombers’ place in Islam to the Ku Klux Klan’s place in Christianity, he’s reaching for more than just Kum Ba Yah points in the blue states. That the racist past of our country bred devils we couldn’t control is well accepted: The film wisely asks why we can’t as easily accept that the devils of other societies arise from similar strife, rather than some inherent hatred of freedom.

Perhaps the most shocking thing about “Traitor” is how direct and uncompromising it chooses to be in decrying our ignorance. The screenplay (co-written by comedian Steve Martin) is smart, daring and challenges the audience to question their lazy, conventional notions of right and wrong. Perhaps because it’s so brash — but also because some battles can never be won — not everyone will be pleased with the sympathy the film affords its antagonists.

Still, even those who deny the considerable parable in the film would have to at least call “Traitor” a riveting drama with an unforgettable lead performance.

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