- Rated R
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All photos © New Line Cinema
Reviewed by Jason Zingale
o you hear that? It’s the sound of left-wing liberals telling us all what bad people we are – an occurrence that’s become synonymous with awards season ever since Paul Haggis’ “Crash” stole the Oscar for Best Picture two years ago. And racism was just the tip of the iceberg. Following the tragic events of 9/11, movie theaters have been inundated with message films about the war – from “Babel” and “Syriana,” to this year’s crop of post-9/11 movies meant to shock Americans into action. As if Fox News wasn’t enough.
What Hollywood failed to realize, however, is that by flooding the market with so many movies about the same thing, they’ve instantly made one another more monotonous and, in effect, that much less important. “Rendition” is such a movie, and while it would have undoubtedly garnered more attention any other year (regardless of quality), it’s forced to share the spotlight with Haggis’ own “In the Valley of Elah," “Lions for Lambs” and “Charlie Wilson’s War.” As a result, the movie comes off not only as yet another proverbial wag of the finger from Hollywood liberalists, but its controversial subject matter is muddled in a script that's afraid of pushing the envelope on the immorality of torture.
Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Douglas Freeman, a CIA analyst who’s unexpectedly thrust into the field when a terrorist attack in North Africa results in the death of his colleague. Determined to track down the man responsible for the bombing, CIA executive Corrine Whitman (Meryl Streep) orders the kidnapping of Egyptian chemical engineer Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally) under the "extraordinary rendition" law – which allows suspected terrorists to be moved to other countries and tortured without legal ramifications – with the hopes of finding out why the bomber may have contacted Anwar on his cell phone. Freeman is assigned to play babysitter to the man in charge of the torture (Yigal Naor), but when he begins to question the methods used to interrogate the suspect, he sets out to release the man from imprisonment. Meanwhile, Anwar’s blonde-haired (and very pregnant) American wife, Isabella (Reese Witherspoon), heads to Washington, D.C. to request the help of an old college boyfriend (Peter Sarsgaard) in cutting through the red tape and tracking down her missing husband, but when his senator boss (Alan Arkin) refuses to get involved, she’s left waiting for a miracle.
The fact that Eli Roth’s “Hostel” films serve as better commentary on torture than “Rendition” is a little embarrassing, but that’s the least of director Gavin Hood’s worries. Based around one central plot point – that Anwar may have been contacted by the terrorist – the entire story is a house of cards just waiting to be blown over by the slightest inconsistency. This is a movie that assumes the government is powerful enough to gain access to anyone’s phone records and kidnap them against their will, but is completely ignorant to the possibility that a) the detainee is telling the truth, and b) that he could have just as well been talking to a man with the same name as the terrorist, or even more likely, been contacted by a phone that was used and then dumped by said terrorist. It’s also extremely unlikely that the government would go to such lengths to kidnap Anwar when the death of the American CIA agent was purely collateral damage. He wasn’t the target of the attack, nor were the bombers even aware of his presence.
Still, the main draw of a film like “Rendition” is in its Oscar-caliber cast – an unfortunate truth considering it fails to produce Oscar-caliber performances from big guns like Streep, Witherspoon and Gyllenhaal. And how could you blame them? Streep is wasted as the cold government bitch (a role that mirrors her appearance in the 2004 remake of “The Manchurian Candidate”), Witherspoon’s worried soccer mom is so one-dimensional that the actress could have sleepwalked through the role, and Gyllenhaal’s unassuming hero actually looks asleep for a good part of the movie. Arkin and Sarsgaard do very little to help the cause, while an unexpected cameo by J.K. Simmons delivers an energetic spark to the beginning of the film, only to have his character disappear until the final minutes.
The end result is exactly what you’d expect from a studio with little Oscar experience. In a blatant attempt to stand out from the pack of likeminded films, “Rendition” hopes to win over the crowd with its controversial subject matter. Unfortunately, neither the story nor its stars do much to capitalize on that point. It’s too bad no one told New Line that just because the wrapper of a candy bar looks shiny, it doesn’t mean the chocolate inside tastes good.
Single-Disc DVD Review:
Despite my mixed reaction towards “Rendition,” New Line has done a decent job of putting together a collection of bonus material that fans will enjoy. Gavin Hood’s commentary track is a great supplement to the film, while the 30-minute making-of featurette (“Intersections”) shows the directorial process from a completely different view. Also included is a handful of deleted/alternate scenes, as well as a short documentary (“Outlawed”) dealing with the extraordinary renditions of two men.