If you want to humanize the war on terror, you’d better cast a more complicated actor than Don Cheadle. Writer-director Jeffrey Nachmanoff’s political drama puts its star and the audience through stress positions—now so familiar—but rarely makes us feel more rattled than if someone was pelting us with feathers. Co-starring Guy Pearce, the name brand cast might lure in those not burned-out on post-9/11 flicks, but A-list stars haven’t helped the rest of the lot either.
Cheadle plays Samir Horn, a Muslim Sudanese American who lost his father in a car bomb before he was old enough to get behind the wheel. Now, Samir’s left the States after getting discriminatorily fired from the US Special Ops squad and pops up on the government’s radar after he’s arrested selling detonators to terrorists. For half the movie, FBI agent Roy Clayton (Pearce with a syrupy drawl) tracks Samir and new BFF Omar (Said Taghmaoui), an Al-Qaeda-esque higher up, across the globe from prison breakouts to embassy explosions. We’re meant to be in suspense about Cheadle’s inner wickedness but c’mon—it’s Don Freaking Cheadle. The man would be more comfortable playing Joan of Arc than Robert Mugabe. The big reveal that he’s a deep undercover double agent under Jeff Daniels, who conveniently neglects to mention it to Pearce at any of their briefings, is preordained. The real dramatic crises should be how many victims bomb expert Cheadle is willing to expend to worm his way closer to the top terrorist mastermind. Yet Cheadle’s inner-struggle is enigmatic—he only accords himself one instance of the sniffles.
Still, what’s dull about the globetrotting thriller isn’t solely Cheadle’s Oscar-seeking stiffness. It’s hard to fault him for being flat when the script, co-written with Steve Martin (yes, that one) is determined to reduce its people to platitude-spouting symbols who expound their philosophies in the near-identical repetitive poetry of southern preachers. Proclaims one, “Terrorism is theater and theater is always performed for an audience.” The only blunt voice belongs to Pearce’s partner Max (Neal McDonough), a hybrid of Dick Cheney and Ted Nugent given to bumper sticker incendiaries like “Arrest all the Muslims!” and “Sorry, left my Bill of Rights at home.” Nachmanoff’s clinicality puts a gulf between us and his characters that cinematographer J. Michael Muro’s in-your-face verite camera work can’t narrow.
Pearce has a few moments where a personality shines through but he’s overwhelmed by the fast, noisy pressures of a film shot in 17 cites and three continents. Better developed are Cheadle’s vengeful co-conspirators, debonair and sympathetic Oman who passingly mentions his Euro boarding school, and more violent Fareed (Aly Khan) who twists the Koran to reinterpret an allowance about disguising their religion to persecutors into an excuse to eat bacon and quaff champagne. We might not know why they fight, but we at least know their moral code. More questionable is a scene when Nachmanoff cuts between a half dozen American-based Muslims listening to a high alert news broadcast about dangerous undercover operatives. Initially, we interpret it as a dig against racial profiling. Later, when these students and baristas are revealed as terrorists, what would this shallow, if well-meaning film have us conclude?