08/20/2008 12:00 AM |

For writer-director Jeffrey Nachmanoff, who helped pen The Day After Tomorrow’s pretext-for-FX script, the best way to tackle terrorism in film is to follow old formulas and make the kind of movie everybody has seen already — just add Muslims. Lots of Muslims. Traitor, a film about jihadis orchestrating attacks across the globe, opens as a prison movie, slips into a mob movie and goes off into a heist picture, all along intertwined with a police procedural. The film exploits all of those genres’ tropes: rival prison gangs, good cop-bad cop routines, assassins in black leather jackets, even a prison break straight out of Prison Break. But it has Muslims! Lots of Muslims. Traitor may aim to capture the zeitgeist with all the Mohammedans, but it’s still rooted in decades-old Hollywood clichés.

Based on a story by Steve Martin (yes, really), the film stars Don Cheadle as a deep-undercover American operative. He infiltrates cells and evades the FBI — which is operating overseas without jurisdiction and ignorant of Cheadle’s covert status — while trying to juggle keeping his cover with preventing civilian casualties. Nachmanoff almost elevates the film above the standard War On Terror summer thriller, in that he gives about as much screen time to arguments critical of America as he does to those in favor of throwing all Muslim-Americans in jail. (The press notes cite the latter as something “that will be on the minds of many audience members.” Really?) But it’s just lip service. For a movie that really wants to make ya think, too often Traitor mistakes mentioning an idea for exploring it, as in this exchange:

“[American weapons] don’t kill innocent people.”
“Uh, yeah they do, genius.”
“Let’s skip the political discourse.”

That was political discourse? Maybe for the average God-fearing knucklehead, Nachmanoff’s apparent target audience. Not only does Traitor position its two heroes (one black, one white — like Obama and McCain!) as solid Men of Faith, the film validates the heartland’s deep, and deeply racist, paranoia. The terrorists are everywhere: your barista, your next-door neighbor, that laptop toting co-ed — each wants to kill you. Despite some dialogue that suggests not all Muslims are terrorists, and that Islam is rife with theological disagreement on the matter of killing innocents in the name of jihad, Traitor features, literally, 1-2 good Muslims (non-terrorist) for every 30-50 bad ones. It’s just one more cliché in a film already overstuffed with them.

Opens August 27