As with most any other genre, pitching a thriller seems to go that much more swimmingly once one finds an ideal blockbuster reference point with which to do half of the leg work. It's 'Die Hard meets this', 'Speed on a that', and, when in doubt, just say the damn thing is 'Hitchcockian'.
Post-2001, the likes of TV's '24' and 'Sleeper Cell', and film's Jason Bourne franchise, have tapped into both our political climate and pop culture zeitgeist, into a globe-trotting, gun-toting fear of the here and there and always now. Jeffrey Nachmanoff's Traitor feels like the first film that has itself been directly spawned in the wake of those successes, as opposed to merely being bolstered by it, and while it may overtake, say, Vantage Point in terms of plausible plotting and worldly knowledge, it remains a film that is good enough to grasp the bar and yet not quite enough to raise it.
Samir Horn (Don Cheadle) was born in Sudan, raised in America, and now finds himself in a prison in Yemen alongside those elements that he sold explosive devices to -- including Omar (Saïd Taghmaoui) -- and under the investigative watch of FBI Agent Roy Clayton (Guy Pearce), who wants to know how said devices are leaving craters all over Europe. Of equal importance to Clayton is also the 'why', because that's how he hopes to prevent the next ones from going off in America. However, that's the problem once Samir escapes with his new associates: he may be the guy who can literally put together all the pieces, but which side is he really on, and why?
Together, Cheadle presents Samir as a devout Muslim of warring loyalties about as much as Nachmanoff treats him like a vacuum of motivation. He is a capable and conflicted man, to be sure, but one who is only as smart and subdued as necessary, compelled to act in the name of plot rather than personality. After all, would a man who so frequently keeps ahead of the authorities really make a point of visiting his estranged girlfriend (Archie Panjabi) in Chicago, other than to let them catch up? Speaking of which, Pearce's Clayton is a similarly well-developed foil -- the son of a preacher man, natch -- who seems to exist solely to catch the man in his sights and offer some understanding along the way, just as his partner (Neal McDonough) runs hot-headed in contrast to his own cool, reasoned logic.
While a dominating motivation never seems to manifest entirely beyond a good-guy/bad-guy dichotomy, director/co-writer Nachmanoff keeps the context and conscience of their actions sensible. He gets that, while terrorism will always have its extremists, it also needs its pawns; that the real fight comes together on the smaller streets of the biggest cities; and that more than one side can claim itself to be right and righteous in a jihad. From the technical end, Mark Kilian's score, J. Michael Muro's cinematography, and Billy Fox's editing only serve to again keep things moving, with Samir traveling to a near dizzying number of North American and European locations, and it's this momentum that particularly keeps the film from being more derivative than it is gripping.
But what's to say that a more agreeable compromise between fundamentalist examination and run-and-gun thriller couldn't have been crafted out of this same material? At least Jason Bourne found himself to be a wronged patriot and set out to hold responsible a government that led him astray; in contrast, Samir Horn boasts no similar arc, nearly no potent arc whatsoever, and the film as a whole seems equally afraid of believing in something greater. Clever in its writing and confident in its direction, Traitor is rarely as compelling when it comes to its drive. It's a thriller that ultimately runs for the sake of running, and we watch for the sake of the chase, and while it's a chase that certainly proves better than most, it's also one that is good enough to have been even better than that.