Close your eyes during the opening titles and you might think this is Munich II. Trading the 70s for today’s post-9/11 bedlam, and Steven Spielberg for South African director Gavin Hood, Rendition picks up the slippery debate over how to combat terrorism with heavy Spielbergian meat-hooks. Having clearly studied the master, Hood weaves blind destruction with heart-tugging sympathy, asserts the film’s topicality at every turn, and cuts the whole thing to a constant loop of Middle Eastern percussion.
The movie’s moral spotlight focuses on “extraordinary rendition,” a procedure by which the State Department transports terror suspects to secret overseas prisons and encourages interrogation without the direct involvement of any judicial system. Jake Gyllenhaal, a newbie CIA operative in an unnamed North African country, absorbs his first hands-on shakedown of a bombing suspect, looking on with trembling lip as the local authorities dish out beatings, electrocution, and water torture. Meanwhile, across town, a young extremist falls in love, and across the ocean a young American wife wonders what happened to her husband. The film works hard to drive home its grandstanding points: that torture makes people say things that might not be true, that even terrorists have families who love them, that the U.S. is no saint, and that politics — wait for it — is complicated.
We get plenty of suspenseful scenes, just like in Munich, a movie similarly packed with easy politics and flavorless heroes. We also get the usual canon of stock characters — the wife, the victim, the conflicted lawman, the impressionable kid. With the exception of Israeli actor Igal Naor, one of the better screen heavies to come along for some time, the star-studded cast gives us little to remember, and the film, for all its topicality, gives us nothing we haven’t seen in every big-budget political thriller racing to the theaters before today’s hot-button issue grows cold.