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A serviceable if rather pat thriller on torture

The star-filled political drama 'Rendition' has few surprises, but all get a chance to shine.

October 19, 2007|Carina Chocano | Times Staff Writer

The latest in a series of films to dramatize the internecine mess that is the war on terror via overlapping stories playing out in far-flung places, "Rendition" couldn't be timelier. It opens just a week after the Supreme Court declined to review the case of misidentified, wrongfully "enhanced-interrogated" Khaled Masri on the grounds that it could expose state secrets.

Masri, a German citizen of Lebanese descent, was vacationing in Macedonia in 2003 when he was kidnapped by the CIA, transferred to a secret Afghanistan prison and tortured for five months, according to his account. When it was discovered they'd gotten the wrong guy, he was blindfolded and dropped off in the Albanian countryside with no money or documents. After years of unsuccessfully seeking justice, Masri was arrested for setting fire to a store near his house last spring when it wouldn't take back an iPod that failed within a week of purchase.

It's details like these that make the Masri case so plaintive, complex and scarily banal and that show up "Rendition" as a pat and generic, if serviceable, political thriller. Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally), the misidentified detainee in the movie, is at least spared the indignity of no justice followed by bad customer service. Anwar is an Egyptian-born businessman with a green card, an American wife (Reese Witherspoon), an American son and another American bundle on the way. He lives in a Craftsman house in the Chicago suburbs and makes $200,000 a year. He's handsome, athletic and expensively educated. If you ever get picked up by secret agents for buying a falafel while vacationing in Paris, you'll want to make sure you fit this profile or something similar. Otherwise, there's no telling.

The title of the film refers to the practice of extraordinary rendition, an extrajudicial practice in which suspected terrorists are transferred from one country to another for interrogation. On his way back from a business conference in South Africa, Anwar, whose surname is one letter away from that of a suspected terrorist, is intercepted during a layover in Washington and summarily disappeared. The reason: Hours earlier, a bomb went off in a busy square in Morocco, killing an American operative. The man's death leaves a young and inexperienced Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal) in charge and sends CIA honcho Corrine Whitman (Meryl Streep) into a retaliatory frenzy. Local officials in North Africa, led by an intimidating Abasi Fawal (Igal Naor), are happy to oblige with Whitman's request that the prisoner be squeezed until he talks, to the free-thinking Freeman's growing discomfort. Meanwhile, the hugely pregnant Isabella (Witherspoon) starts knocking on doors, starting with that of an ex-boyfriend named Alan Smith (Peter Sarsgaard) who works for a powerful senator (Alan Arkin).

Directed by South African director Gavin Hood, whose surprisingly poignant gangster film "Tsotsi" won the Academy Award for foreign-language film in 2006, "Rendition" enjoys all the perks that tend to follow that stamp of approval. The cast is so starry it could be mistaken for a night in Wyoming. Everybody gets his or her turn to shine while the poor guy in the Moroccan dungeon gets water-boarded.

Witherspoon may be tiny, but her face is pure, unalloyed determination. She is all jutting chin and set jaw, and her eyes shoot beams of indignant righteousness. Streep, meanwhile, has a way of being slithery and immutable at once and proving that there are few tough guys scarier than soft-spoken ones in evening gowns.

There's some poetic pleasure to be had from watching Gyllenhaal drink and brood his way to a moral awakening, but the Byronic response to the crisis of conscience is a little hard to buy under the circumstances. (It also requires enduring more scenes of torture than are probably allowed by the terms of the Geneva Conventions.) Arkin is aggressive and jovial as the pragmatic senator, and Sarsgaard is tentative and cautious as the ambitious aide Arkin's character subtly coaches in the ways of political cynicism. But aside from a subplot -- involving Fawal's daughter Fatima (Zineb Oukach) and Khalid (Moa Khouas), a shady boy with a tragic past -- that winds to a clever twist, "Rendition" offers few surprises, and it tips its hand too soon and too predictably to do much more than goose your weary outrage. That is assuming you side with Anwar and his plight. If Whitman is your guy, the whole business should make you as cranky as it makes her.


"Rendition." MPAA rating: R for torture/violence and language. Running time: 122 minutes. In wide release.

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