Sicario: Day of the Soldado


Hispanics with guns: Donald Trump’s nightmare.

(2018) Action (Columbia) Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin, Isabela Moner, Jeffrey Donovan, Manuel Garcia-Ruffo, Catherine Keener, Matthew Modine, Shea Whigham, Elijah Rodriguez, Howard Ferguson Jr., David Castañeda, Jacqueline Torres, Raoul Trujillo, Bruno Bichir, Jake Picking, Tenzin Marco-Taylor, Alfredo Quinoz, Nick Shakoour, Lourdes del Rio Garcia. Directed by Stefano Sollima

 

Our Southern border has been a hot button item for those on the left and on the right. Blue staters tend to look at the issue as a humanitarian crisis born largely of our own policies in Latin America while red staters see it as an invasion of criminals, layabouts and terrorists.

Following the destruction of a Kansas City big box store by suicide bombers, the U.S. Government has had more than enough. They bring in “consultant” Matt Graver (Brolin) and his nearly indestructible assassin Alejandro (del Toro) to ferment war among the Mexican cartels who were responsible for smuggling the bombers across the border. To do that, Alejandro kidnaps the daughter (Moner) of a particularly vicious cartel boss. This predictably stirs up a hornet’s nest and while it gets the desired results, the conscience of Alejandro – whose family was wiped out by drug lords like the girl’s father – doesn’t go unscathed.

The movie sorely misses Denis Villaneuve who directed the first one; his sure hand could have made this a better film. Italian television director Sollima, best known for the ultra-violent Gomorrah series, does pretty well with the action series and keeps the pacing of the film up to snuff. He has more trouble with character development as other than the three characters mentioned above, nearly all the characters get lost in the shuffle, including a young Mexican-American boy in McAllen, Texas played by Rodriguez who falls into working for the cartels and ends up in a violent confrontation with Alejandro. A little more depth of character there might have given the film some oomph.

Del Toro and Brolin are both outstanding and are the real reason to see the film. I understand that this is meant to be the middle chapter in a proposed trilogy and although the box office numbers don’t really seem to point the way for a third installment, I nonetheless wouldn’t mind seeing one.

Emily Blunt, who starred in the first film, is also sorely missed and while the filmmakers assert her story had gone full circle, it still leaves the film without much of a moral center and I suppose that is merely appropriate. When one considers that in many ways this movie is making the case for the right’s take on the border, it’s hard to justify it in the face of children who continue to be separated from their parents at the border. But then, that’s just my own personal bias rearing its head. I guess it is fairer to say that Sicario: Day of the Soldado is a solid action film that has political elements that makes it very relevant to what’s going on at our border. If you leave the theater chanting “Build that wall” though, it’s on you.

REASONS TO SEE: Brolin and del Toro make an excellent team.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little less focused and a little more cliché than the first film.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a surfeit of violence and profanity as well as some fairly bloody images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Denis Villaneuve, who directed Sicario, was unable to commit to the sequel due to scheduling conflicts.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Starz, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/20/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews: Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Miss Bala
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Tomorrow, Maybe?

Unmasking Jihadi John: Anatomy of a Terrorist


The face of a modern barbarian.

2019) Documentary (HBO) Mohammed Emwazi, Richard Verkaik, General David Petraeus, Dr. Emman El-Badawi, Jo Shorter, Claudia Giarusso, Douglas H. Wise, James Foley, Jesse Morton, Nicholas Henin, Federico Motka, Simon McKay, Dr. Mamadou Bacoun, Richard Walton, Steve Warren, Robert Harrison, Diane Foley, Lord David Anderson, Bethany Haines. Directed by Anthony Wonke

 

News junkies will remember the saga of Jihadi John, a member of ISIS who beheaded journalists and aid workers on-camera after forcing them to read documentaries repudiating their home countries. What distinguished him from other terrorists was his accent; he was British and well-educated, nothing like the terrorists we’d come to expect. When he spoke of the United States or his home United Kingdom, it was in a voice dripping with venom and hatred.

Eventually, intelligence agencies identified him as Mohammed Emwazi, born in Kuwait but brought to London by his family when he was six. By all accounts through teachers and classmates he was a shy student who was teased about his bad breath and who had a passion for Manchester United, the soccer club. He also liked to drink and watch The Simpsons. What led him to become a brutal terrorist capable of torture and murder, and of making videos so that his savagery could be seen in all its barbarity?

That’s the question that you would think this documentary was posing based on its title but you’ll be sorely disappointed if you do. We get lots of talking heads – often filmed starkly in pools of white light against black settings not unlike an interrogation – chatting about his upbringing, utilizing school mates and teachers (although no relatives who likely didn’t want to participate). From there we see him as a young man, wanting to travel to Tanzania to go on safari but by that point he was already on a terrorist watch list for his visits to Somalia and for some of his expressions of radical fundamentalist Islam. From there on, we are given the perspective of those chasing him, and those who survived capture (Motka and Henin) and relatives of those who did not (Haines and Diane Foley).

Wonke, a veteran British documentarian, gives us plenty of background behind the formation of ISIS and of the terrible deeds done by the group that elevated them even ahead of Al-Qaeda in the ranks of terrorist organizations. Still, we never really get much insight into how Emwazi became what he did. There are no a’ha moments, no major events that radicalized him. It seems to have been a process, something harder to document. Wonke chooses not to which is what makes this documentary so disappointing.

It’s not that this isn’t a useful film by any means – if you want to look at how ISIS and Emwazi in particular utilized social media to get their radical message across. We are also reminded how these men did unforgivable things in service to their religious message, a warning of the dangers of religion turned radical. This isn’t a film for the squeamish (although they have the decency not to show the actual beheadings but excerpts from the tapes just prior to the crimes) nor is it for the hateful but it is for people who need to be reminded just how warped obsessive belief can make even the most ordinary of people. I just wish that the filmmakers had been more successful in explaining how it was done in this case.

REASONS TO SEE: Utilizes recreated footage very nicely.
REASONS TO AVOID: Doesn’t really deliver on the promise to explain how he became radicalized.
FAMILY VALUES: There are depictions of violence and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Emwazi attended the University of Westminster where he studied  information systems with business management, eventually securing a degree..
BEYOND THE THEATER: HBO Go
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/28/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Homegrown: The Counter-Terror Dilemma
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Teacher

Eye in the Sky


The final onscreen performance of Alan Rickman is a good one.

The final onscreen performance of Alan Rickman is a good one.

(2016) Thriller (Bleecker Street) Helen Mirren, Alan Rickman, Aaron Paul, Phoebe Fox, Bakhad Abdi, Jeremy Northam, Iain Glen, Richard McCabe, Monica Dolan, Kim Engelbrecht, Ebby Weyime, Babou Ceesay, Faisa Hassan, Aisha Takow, Armaan Haggio, Carl Beukes, Bob Chappell, Daniel Fox, Jessica Jones, Michael O’Keefe, Laila Robins, Lex King. Directed by Gavin Hood

Warfare is full of shades of grey. The morality of killing other people for political or economic purposes is shaky to begin with but in modern war, killing can be done with the touch of a button and with a change from armies facing each other in remote places into terrorists in urban places, war can come to the population. Of course, in the 20th century that had already taken place but now there is no place a military strike can’t take place, or at least very few places with the advent of drones.

A multi-national task force is tracking an English radicalized terrorist (King) with ties to Al Habaab in Kenya. In an operations center in Britain, Colonel Katherine Powell (Mirren) is coordinating with her superior, Lt. General Frank Benson (Rickman) as they observe her activities in a house in a terrorist-run part of the city. They have eyes on through the use of drones, piloted by American airman Steve Watts (Paul). On the ground in Kenya they have Jama Farah (Abdi) who is observing the house directly.

At first they think they hit paydirt when their target meets with some high-level terrorist officers, but their satisfaction turns to concern when they discover that a suicide bombing is being planned for and executed out of the house. That changes the color of the mission and frantic calls start going up the chain of command asking for and receiving an authorization to use a Hellfire missile to take out the terrorists. But things get further complicated when a little girl sets up a bread stand outside the terrorist house; the drone controller begins to have doubts and the calls up the ladder take a more urgent tone. Suddenly those who were eager to authorize the mission earlier are passing the buck, while time ticks away. Is the life of a single girl worth the dozens of lives that might be taken if the suicide bombers carry out their mission?

I don’t know that the movie really intends to answer that question; in fact, it can’t really be answered. From a strictly numbers viewpoint the answer is no – the people who might be killed by the suicide bomber are no less innocent and no less important than the life of a little girl. The question really is does knowingly ordering an airstrike that will be likely the death of a little girl more monstrous than allowing a bombing to take place when it could have been prevented. And that’s where the waters become a little bit murkier because we get into political territory then.

But that’s as may be. As a movie, Eye in the Sky does a credible job of keeping the tension high, although there are times when I thought they were being overly redundant in explaining that when you bring politicians into a military matter, things tend to get worse rather than better for while a soldier is more interested in accomplishing their particular mission, a politician is more concerned about covering their own derrieres.

And in conveying that message, Hood inserted some prestigious performers in key roles. Mirren is as gifted an actress as there is in the business, and her hawkish, shrill colonel is as stiff as a ramrod, as pitiless as a predator and as patient as a boiling teakettle. Colonel Powell is in many ways the epitome of a military mind, very centered and focused on completing the task at hand. Powell in and of herself is basically not very likable, but Mirren makes her human, a deceptively difficult job.

The late Alan Rickman, who passed away this past January and who will be much missed by this critic, never disappointed during his career and went out on a high note. In all honesty his General Benson is the epitome of a liaison, trying to balance the needs of the soldier with the needs of the politicians and having to stand on one leg while holding an umbrella over his back with a teacup balanced on the tip of his nose. Rickman gives the part some humanity as the one character who truly sees both sides of the argument.

Paul, who won three Emmys for Breaking Bad hasn’t really had a role in the movies that has utilized him as well as this one did. He is an airman with a conscience, one who doesn’t blindly follow orders but questions them when the orders appear to be morally ambiguous. In many ways, he had the most complicated role of the three main leads, but he shows that his award-winning performances were no fluke.

Is this manipulative? You bet it is. There is nothing more innocent than a little girl who is trying to help her family by selling the bread her mama baked to her neighbors going to market. That makes the moral issue a bit more focused, but it is a bit lazy – I don’t doubt that those in command of executing drone strikes find any civilian casualties wrenching, whether the victims are cute little girls or old alcoholic men. Taking the life of a non-combatant is not an easy thing for the military, as Rickman so eloquently expresses near the end of the film: “Don’t dare to presume that a military man doesn’t understand the cost of war.”

This is a movie that, if you’ll forgive an unintended pun, flew under the radar. However it is a crackerjack of a movie that should be sought out on VOD or in the near future, on home video. The performances here are scintillating and the questions raised timely and difficult. In many ways this is not only a thinking person’s war film, but a suspense film of the highest order.

Hood is not really trying to send a political message, or at least I don’t think he is. He is simply presenting the world as it is; that when killing comes down to the touch of a button, the morality of it becomes far murkier. And that’s a very powerful subject matter indeed.

REASONS TO GO: Edge of the seat suspense. Tremendous performances by most of the leads. Grapples with the morality of modern warfare.
REASONS TO STAY: Is guilty of being manipulative. Drags in places.
FAMILY VALUES: Violent images, adult themes and rough language, as well as children in peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rickman’s final on-screen appearance; he also lends his voice to Alice through the Looking Glass.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/28/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Good Kill
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Embers

Afghan Star


Afghan Star

Randy Jackson found Lema's performance "pitchy."

(Zeitgeist) Habib Amiri, Setara Husseinzada, Rafi Naabzada, Lema Sahar, Hamid Sakhizada, Massoud Sanjer, Daoud Sediqi, Tahir Shaqi, Fazi Hadi Shinwari. Directed by Havana Marking

The fallout from the War on Terror continues to wreak havoc on those countries that it has touched. After years of totalitarian rule by the Taliban, Afghanistan is finally beginning to turn the corner and modernizing, loosening ridiculous strictures laid on that country in the name of religion. For example, it was a crime under Taliban rule to listen to music or broadcast musical content on television.

A charismatic young television producer named Daoud Sediqi caught a glimpse of the British show Pop Idol (the American version of which is American Idol) and thought it would be something worth bringing to Afghanistan. Normally, I’d be making some joke about war crimes here, but the broadcasting of that show would prove to have a profound effect on the country.

This documentary, made by British filmmakers, captures a season of the show and its effect on Afghanistan. While the Taliban is gone, its supporters still wield enormous power, particularly in the Kandahar district. Death threats for those who go against the strict rules of the Imams is not uncommon.

Afghanistan also has a number of different ethnic groups, all more or less at each other’s throats. Sediqi was hoping that the voting would cross ethnic lines but in truth it hasn’t up to now. The program set up a cell phone voting program which would tend to favor younger and more open-minded voters, although in all honesty the results were still more or less along ethnic lines.

In fact, the four finalists – whom the documentary focuses on – were from different ethnic groups. There’s Rafi, who has the slick, charismatic and handsome look that would make him at home on our own version of the show. Hamid is a more polished vocalist from a professional group; he is from the marginalized Hazara ethnic group and he hopes his success will shine a spotlight on the plight of the Hazara. Setara is a fiery young woman from Herat whose last appearance on the show involves dancing and allowing her scarf to slip, both major no-no’s for the chaste Islamic woman. Lema is also a woman, also from a conservative region of Afghanistan whose music lessons, had the Taliban discovered them, would have led to her immediate execution.

That the documentary exists at all is a tribute to the resilience of the Afghans. Footage early on from the 1980s shows that the country had at least a passing interest in modern Western music, although that was abruptly and brutally cut short by the ascension of the Taliban.

This is not about the music competition and quite frankly, unless you’re a BIG fan of Afghan music, you’re probably not going to care who wins so much. In fact, the drawback here is that the music is mostly along traditional Afghani lines and those less open-minded sorts are going to dislike it pretty intensely. For my part, I found the music okay, not being a particular expert in the particular art form. All I can say is that I liked most of it.

Can you imagine what American Idol would be like if Kelly Clarkson would have had to go into hiding for dancing during her performance, or if Sanjaya had been making a political statement just by entering? It’s an amazing juxtaposition between two different cultures, where contestants in one thrive on popularity and the ability to sell records, compared with contestants who want to perform because they finally have been allowed a forum to. How exciting it is to see a voice which has been silenced for so long to finally be given its chance to shine?

WHY RENT THIS: A very compelling look at modern Afghan culture, particularly on the clash between traditional Islam and Western influences.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The “pop” music of the show is actually fairly traditional music from the various Afghan ethnic groups and some may not find it to their liking.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the subject matter is on the mature side, but otherwise should be suitable for nearly everyone.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the official United Kingdom submission for the Academy Awards Best Foreign Language Film for 2010. It did not, however, receive a nomination.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s an interview with director Havana Marking detailing the difficulties in making this documentary.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Kick-Ass

Green Zone


Green Zone

Matt Damon gets medieval on some critic's ass.

(Universal) Matt Damon, Greg Kinnear, Brendan Gleeson, Amy Ryan, Jason Isaacs, Khalid Abdalla, Igal Naor, Said Faraj, Jerry Della Salla, Raad Rawi, Michael O’Neill, Nicoye Banks, Sean Huze, Paul Karsko. Directed by Paul Greengrass

Perhaps one of the most important questions of our time is why we invaded Iraq in 2003. It is the standard by which the United States will be judged as a nation as we move forward into the 21st century; our actions in invading a sovereign nation without true justification have tarnished our reputation forever.

Army Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller (Damon) is in charge of a team of soldiers whose mission is to locate and neutralize weapons of mass destruction the Iraqis have hidden in caches around Baghdad and the surrounding areas. It is early in the war, and the country is still waiting on definitive proof that the Saddam Hussein had been indeed manufacturing WMD.

He is sent to a location which is being peppered by a sniper in a nearby tower. Iraqi citizens are looting the industrial site like crazy and Miller is concerned that some of them may be getting away with dangerous material that could be used against Iraqi civilians or coalition soldiers. Despite the fact that the site isn’t secure, he orders his men to go in and take out the sniper, which they do in a professional, efficient manner. Once he gets into the site, however, he discovers nothing there – no weapons, nothing dangerous, only toilet parts and years worth of pigeon droppings.

This turns out to be the third straight supposed WMD site that the team has been to that has been completely devoid of anything resembling weapons. Miller knows that the intelligence they have been getting is faulty. While the military command is taking the position that the Iraqis had moved the weapons from these sites, Miller knows that there had never been weapons there. He questions the intelligence at a staff meeting attended by CIA analyst Martin Brown (Gleeson) who approaches Miller afterwards, completely in agreement with Miller that there is something fishy going on. He gives Miller his card with the request that he keep him in the loop as to what Miller’s team finds on their next mission, which Miller agrees to do.

In the meantime, Clark Poundstone (Kinnear), a high-ranking functionary in the White House with Pentagon connections, is escorting an Iraqi exile (Rawi) home to Baghdad. Poundstone is eager to install him as the new leader of Iraq. Wall Street Journal reporter Lawrie Dayne (Ryan) is covering the trip; it was her articles on government reports about WMD that helped turn the public towards invasion. She knows that most of the government intelligence came from a single source; a high-ranking Iraqi government official known only as “Magellan.” Because no WMD had turned up despite the Army’s best efforts to find them, she is concerned that her story asserting that they were there may turn out to be false. She wants to talk to Magellan directly but Poundstone demurs, stating that the debriefing process is ongoing.

While on his next assignment fruitlessly digging for a possible underground WMD site, Miller is approached by an Iraqi national named Freddie (Abdalla) who informs him of a meeting taking place in a nearby home of high-ranking Iraqi officials. Something about Freddie’s story rings true to Miller and he decides to go investigate, even though Wilkins (Della Salla), his second-in-command, worries that they are being led into an ambush.

The soldiers enter the house to find that such a meeting is indeed taking place and that one of the participants is none other than General Al-Rawi (Naor), Saddam’s highest-ranking military official and certainly the man who would have the most information about any WMD that might be hidden in Iraq. Although Al-Rawi escapes, he leaves behind a notebook which Miller is anxious to deliver to his CIA contact Brown. However, when the prisoners taken from the meeting are abducted by American Special Forces soldiers led by the arrogant Briggs (Isaacs), Miller knows that something is more than just terribly wrong.

This is ostensibly an action thriller and it is by no means meant to be a documentary about actual events in Iraq. The premise, however, is valid – to this day we have yet to locate any WMD in Iraq and the entire premise for invasion has been justifiably labeled a sham. Whether Greengrass’ theory is true or not, it is merely that – a theory – and certainly our government is guilty at the very least of incompetently not fact-checking to make sure that there were indeed WMD in Iraq.

Some of the events here happened as portrayed. The CIA was left out of the WMD loop and CIA sources reported at the time that there hadn’t been any WMD since the first Gulf War. President Bush did land on an aircraft carrier and proclaim “Mission Accomplished,” which was a premature pronouncement of historic proportions. Public opinion was turned towards a series of news articles and television reports that reported the presence of WMD in Iraq that later turned out to have been false. The American people were indeed lied to.

But that’s neither here nor there as far as this review should be concerned. What is important is that the movie is worth seeing, and it is indeed that. Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass had previously collaborated on the second two movies of the Bourne trilogy, and those are still regarded as some of the best action films of recent years. Green Zone does indeed meet those standards and Damon is one of the primary reasons why.

As Roy Miller, he is a professional soldier, assiduously trained but with a mind of his own. He sees bad information at every turn and no matter how many times his commanders tell him just to look the other way and do his job without question, he can’t bring himself to do it. Yeah, he’s a bit of a super-soldier in that he seems incapable of being stopped but quite frankly, that’s okay in an action film where we expect our heroes to be somewhat unstoppable.

Kinnear makes for a smarmy villain, a viper in weasel’s clothes that exploits political necessity and is willing to do whatever it takes to cover up his crimes. Kinnear, who of late has been playing lighter roles, excels here in a role that is a bit outside his comfort zone. Gleeson, who is one of the best character actors working today (see In Bruges if you don’t believe me), is solid here. He is gruff, grumpy and a grizzled veteran of the Middle East who sees through the bull pucky and understands the situation for what it is; a cover-up. He is jaded and worn down from years of being assigned to one of the most complex, volatile regions on Earth, but still maintains his own principles nonetheless.

Greengrass utilizes the hand-held camera quite a bit during the action sequences to convey the chaos of the scene, and while I don’t necessarily have a problem with the concept, I think he overuses it here. After awhile, I actually had to  turn my head from the screen in order to stave off the dizziness and queasiness that accompanies that kind of cinematography. A little bit of hand-held goes a long way, gentlemen.

What I like most about Green Zone is that it is a morality play disguised as an action movie. While the filmmaker’s leanings are quite easy to suss out, it does invite you to think also about what blindly accepting the word of any government. After all, even the best governments are made up of human beings, and those human beings often have agendas of their own, agendas that might not necessarily be in the best interest of their own country. That’s the scariest part of the movie.

REASONS TO GO: This is a morality play wrapped in an action movie framework. Damon is rock-solid as Miller.   

REASONS TO STAY: Greengrass uses the hand-held camera to such an extent that even audience members without vertigo issues were getting dizzy.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of violence, including some scenes of torture and foul language throughout. Only for mature teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The character of Lawrie Dayne is loosely based on Judith Miller of the New York Times.

HOME OR THEATER: As one of the first big action movies of the year you may be tempted to see it in the theater, but quite frankly, the overuse of shaky hand-held cam shots make this a better fit for the home screen.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: 12 Rounds

Body of Lies


Body of Lies

Russell Crowe and Leonardo di Caprio share a Starbucks moment.

(Warner Brothers) Leonardo di Caprio, Russell Crowe, Mark Strong, Golshifteh Farahani, Oscar Isaac, Simon McBurney, Ali Suliman, Alon Aboutboul. Directed by Ridley Scott

Living on the front lines of the War on Terror is like sleeping with a time bomb. You never know when, or if, it is going to go off.

Roger Ferris (di Caprio) is an American field operative of the CIA assigned to the Middle East division. He is fluent in Arabic, whip-smart and streetwise. He has been assigned by his boss, Ed Hoffman (Crowe) to apprehend one of the major players in Jihadist terrorism, Al-Saleem (Aboutboul) and he has a golden opportunity to take a step closer to that goal – a suicide bomber wants to defect. The fact that he’s even met with Americans is a death sentence for him and he knows it. The nervous terrorist wants asylum in exchange for his information which concerns a training facility the jihadists use. Ferris offers it to him but Hoffman vetoes it; the information they’d receive from following his inevitable murderers would be far more valuable than the intelligence the man has given them. Thoroughly upset, Ferris turns the man loose and heads up a surveillance team on the man. Predictably, their contact is killed and the terrorists are able to get away.

Angry at the waste of a potential informant, Ferris decides to attack the training facility to see if there’s information he can glean to salvage the debacle. He and his partner get in there and manage to retrieve some documents that the terrorists are in the process of burning, knowing that the Americans likely knew about the training camp and might soon be there. Ferris escapes after a running gun battle with the terrorists chasing his SUV, but his partner dies in the process and Ferris is badly injured.

Recovering from his injuries, Ferris learns that the seized documents yielded the location of a safe house for the terrorist organization in Amman, Jordan. Knowing that Ferris is his best man, Hoffman sends him to the American embassy where the CIA station chief is a bumbling idiot who takes umbrage at being shuffled off to the side in lieu of Ferris. The Jordan station doesn’t have the manpower to keep the safe house under constant surveillance so Ferris knows he’ll have to go to the Jordanian Head of State Security, Hani Salaam (Strong), an urbane and sophisticated man who understands the realities of espionage in the 21st century and senses a kindred spirit in Ferris.

The first day things go straight to hell. On the orders of Hoffman, one of the CIA flunkies spooks one of the terrorist informants, leading to a chase down the back alleys of Amman. The informant gets away and Ferris is bitten by a rabid dog. He is taken to a Jordanian clinic where he is ministered to by a comely nurse named Aisha (Farahani), who strikes up a friendship with Ferris that leads to deeper feelings.

In the meantime, the relationship with Hani is deteriorating as Ferris is constantly having the legs cut out from under him on operations by Hoffman, who is under political pressure to get results. Eventually, things get so bad that the safe house is abandoned and burned and Hani orders Ferris out of the country.

Back in the states, Ferris concocts a plan to set up a fictitious terrorist cell in order to flush out Al-Saleem, using an innocent architect (Suliman) as bait. The trap is set, but will the terrorist take the bait? And can Ferris trust his own superiors not to stab him in the back?

Ridley Scott is an A-list director with Oscar winners and classics to his credit. Here he’s more or less attempting a John Le Carre-style spy thriller modernized and set in the War on Terror. Unfortunately, the spy game has changed a great deal since the Cold War and while Ferris gets beat up an awful lot, we never get a sense that he’s in constant jeopardy. Just about everything comes at him head-on rather from left field.

Di Caprio is also an A-lister and has shown that he has the acting chops to handle anything, but I got a strange sense of detatchment from watching his performance here. He does a lot of yelling and a lot of swearing but he doesn’t seem emotionally involved, at least to me. Crowe – who gained 50 pounds for his role – has less to do but makes his bureaucratic spook more harrowing, someone who is playing a game in which human lives are collateral damage. He is charming, which makes the role all the more chilling.

Surprisingly, Mark Strong gives the most memorable performance for my money. Well-dressed, impeccably mannered and polite, he could have stepped out of a James Bond movie, but rather than making him a caricature, Strong instead imbues him with a certain street smarts that gives him the air of a cobra, biding its time before striking with terrifying speed and ferocity.

The romance between Aisha and Ferris is essentially a vehicle to give Ferris a personal stake in the denouement, but Farahani manages to give her character charm and likability, enough that we want to spend more time with her. Some of the best scenes in the movie explore the cultural difficulties in carrying on a romance with a Westerner for someone in her character’s position in life, but unfortunately those scenes are rare here.

Some of this is standard spy 101, but overall the acting is good enough, the actors charming enough to make this worth seeing, particularly as it’s on cable pretty regularly at the moment. I get the feeling that Scott wanted to illustrate the difficulties of doing fieldwork in the War on Terror when there are political concerns that keep the front line personnel from carrying out their tasks. This isn’t a bad movie, but I think there was a better one in the subtexts.

WHY RENT THIS: Scott is one of the finest directors at setting tension on film today. Di Caprio is solid in the lead and he gets able support from Crowe, Strong and Farahani.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: There are some missed opportunities here as the film often takes the easy way out in terms of plot by using standard Hollywood devices.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a surfeit of violence and bad language, also a fairly graphic scene of torture; add it all up and it means put the kids to bed before putting this on the DVD player.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scenes set in Manchester and Munich was actually filmed in the United States. The only location filming done on this movie which was set in places throughout the world were the United States and Morocco.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray edition includes an interactive track that allows viewers to see behind-the-scenes features concurrently with watching the movie by pressing a button on their remotes; it is much like the New Line Infinifilm feature that used to be on DVDs back when they actually had special features.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Gladiator

Traitor


Traitor

Don Cheadle and Jeff Daniels are moving at cross purposes.

(Overture) Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, Jeff Daniels, Neal McDonough, Archie Panjabi, Alvy Khan, Said Taghmaoui, Raad Rawi. Directed by Jeffrey Nachmanoff

Our government uses the term “war on terror” despite the fact that from its outer trappings, its not so much a war as it is a guerilla action. In this fight, boundaries blur and it is not always possible to tell who is innocent and who is not. In the war on terror, the casualties are not always easily apparent.

Samir (Cheadle), as a young boy, saw his father killed in the explosion of a car bomb (who set the bomb and why is never explained in the film). As an adult, we see him in Yemen, attempting to sell plastic explosives to a terrorist group. When that group is captured by the Yemeni police, Samir is thrown in a Yemeni prison along with Omar (Taghmaoui), a high-ranking soldier in the Muslim Brotherhood.

Samir is questioned by Agents Clayton (Pearce) and Archer (McDonough) of the FBI. They’re anxious to make a deal with the soft-spoken, highly intelligent Samir but he demurs. They basically throw up their hands and leave him in prison to rot.

In prison, Samir and Omar develop a bond as Omar witnesses Samir’s devotion to Allah and when the Brotherhood stage an escape for Omar, he takes Samir with him. They flea to Marseilles, where the former army demolition expert Samir helps develop a remote-controlled device to use to detonate a bomb at the U.S. Embassy in Nice. Eight people are killed in the explosion, the news of which apparently disturbs Samir – he had been hoping for a higher body count, he tells Fareed Mansour (Khan), their Pakistani handler.

As it turns out, Samir had been hoping for a certain body count that had been lower – the bodies had been planted at the Embassy by security advisor Carter (Daniels), who was Samir’s real handler. Samir is actually an undercover agent looking to get to Nathir (Rawi), one of the highest ranking terrorists in the world. He is also trying to find out what large-scale operation the Brotherhood has in mind on American soil.

But is Samir really an American operative, or does he have his own agenda? Time is running out; the operation is taking place soon, Samir is wanted by police organizations world wide for his part in the embassy bombing and Clayton and Archer are closing in. Who will protect the innocent when the lines are so very blurred?

Director Nachmanoff has delivered a taut, well-paced thriller that keeps you guessing as to Samir’s loyalties despite the fact that they tell you he is working for Carter early on. The fact that you’re never quite sure whose side he’s working on til near the end is a tribute to Cheadle the actor, and his performance is the primary reason to seek this movie out.

Everything in this movie is about motivation and the fact that the motivation for so much is unclear. What drives Samir – be it the boyhood tragedy we see in the first frames or the prejudice he encountered in America – is never fully explained. The audience is left to draw their own conclusions, mostly from Samir’s actions.

Other than those playing FBI agents, the driving forces behind the characters remain foggy in them as well, particularly the Muslim characters. The exception is Omar, who seems to be simply driven by the convictions of his faith. Omar doesn’t hate the Americans he wants to kill so badly; he is merely a soldier in a jihad doing Allah’s will. If those he follows tell him it is Americans he must kill, then so be it.

The movie travels from location to location with dizzying speed (done on a relatively modest budget so kudos to the producers) and keep you guessing as to what is going to happen next. While the scenes taking place in the Middle East are vivid with color, there is a grainy, washed out aspect to the scenes taking place in Europe and North America I found intriguing. I’m not sure what the filmmakers intention was in terms of message – it could well have been that the weather was bad while they were shooting on location. It is a bit annoying, at least to my sensibilities.

There is an authenticity to the movie – Nachmanoff, who also co-wrote the movie, consulted with several intelligence community professionals to try and get the procedural and political aspects right and this pays off. He also succeeds in humanizing terrorism, putting a face on what we sometimes tend to characterize as mindless fanatics. While there is certainly fanaticism within the radical jihadist movement, these are also human beings with an agenda, a plan to achieve it and the patience to see it through – patience from an unshakable belief that God is on their side.

While there are several twists and turns that I thought a bit too unnecessary (the last one regarding Carter is a particularly hoary cliché and could have been excised from the movie), this is still worth giving a look to. After all, in the war on terror the ultimate casualty has been the truth.

WHY RENT THIS: Cheadle’s performance is rock-solid, as is Guy Pearce’s. A very different look at the war on terror and its (unintended) casualties. A nicely-paced, taut thriller.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Needlessly twisty, plot-wise. Much of the movie looks grainy and washed out, particularly when the setting is in Europe and North America.

FAMILY VALUES: Some very violent imagery and raw language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was originally going to be made by Disney’s Touchstone Pictures, but after a management change there the property was dropped, allowing Cheadle to take it to Overture Films, the big screen subsidiary of the Starz premium cable channel..

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Simpsons Movie