Throughout his career, Don Cheadle has proved himself a superlative minimalist, a man with a gift for effortlessly conveying a deep, complicated inner life. That skill is put to good use in the international thriller Traitor, with Cheadle brilliantly playing a man of fierce intelligence, focus, and efficiency whose allegiances are shrouded in mystery, especially in the early going.
Cheadle stars as a devoutly Muslim former U.S. Special Ops officer who began associating with radical Islamic terrorists during a stint in Afghanistan. Since then, he's effectively operated off the grid, popping up during a botched arms deal, a prison break in Yemen, and a terrorist bombing in France. Cheadle's sinister deeds put him on a collision course with Guy Pearce, an FBI agent whose background echoes that of the shadowy man he's pursuing.
Traitor is essentially two films. One is a superbly acted, suspenseful character study about a man whose faith pulls him in antithetical directions. The other is a much more generic, forgettable cat-and-mouse yarn about dogged G-men pursuing elusive prey. In a cinema world that all too often stereotypes Muslims as one-dimensional bad guys, Traitor dares to take Islam seriously; if not for the troubling fact that most of the Muslims here are terrorists willing to die for Jihad, this would be one of the most sympathetic, nuanced depictions of Islam in recent memory. Cheadle's immersion in the murky underworld of international terrorism is so fascinating that the FBI stuff can't help but look wan and rote by comparison. Without its mesmerizing lead performance, Traitor easily could have devolved into direct-to-DVD fodder. Instead, Cheadle illustrates how great acting can elevate standard-issue material into something much more haunting and ambiguous.