Ordinary Rendition 

It’s not torture, but this latest Mideast thriller’s as conventional as they come

Wednesday, Oct 17 2007

Late in Rendition, in case you’ve been blind and deaf enough not to have cottoned to the drift, a tense Washington exchange on the legitimacy of bundling dark-skinned Americans off to secret prisons abroad takes place. On one side is a driven young senatorial aide (Peter Sarsgaard), on the other the CIA suit in charge of foreign operations (Meryl Streep, reprising Prada in less alluring threads). He throws the Constitution at her; she invokes 9/11 and argues that thousands of Londoners are safe because the West outsources terror interrogations to Middle Eastern powers allegedly less fastidious than we about the Geneva Convention.

There’s a genuinely uncomfortable discussion to be had here, not only about covert government violations of human and civil rights, but, if you really want to push into queasy territory, whether it’s possible to gain intelligence about terrorism without coercion. But don’t imagine that you’ll find much beyond lip service to serious public debate in this slick thriller, directed by Gavin Hood from a hypermasculine debut screenplay by Kelley Sane. Like so many of its proliferating kind, Rendition is far more interested in playing the hydraulics of abduction and torture in exotic foreign parts for all they’re worth.

Nothing if not torn from the headlines, the movie turns on the abduction of Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally), a slender, sensitive Egyptian-American chemical engineer whose only good fortune for the duration is to be married to Reese Witherspoon, gamely trying to wring a little specificity from her waiting-wifey lines. Nabbed by muscled he-men at a stateside airport as he returns from a business trip to Cape Town, Anwar vanishes from the airline’s passenger list. We find him next — naked, shackled and manhandled in exhaustive detail by dusky fellows answering to a decidedly unsentimental prison chief (the versatile Israeli actor Igal Naor) — “somewhere in Northern Africa.” Morocco, actually, but what does it matter? It all looks the same to Hollywood, with brilliant sunsets, narrow alleys teeming with trainee suicide bombers, satellite dishes, and throbbing Arab dirges on the soundtrack.

Related Stories

As I write, the Supreme Court has upheld the Bush administration’s invocation of state secrets to squelch the suit of a German-Lebanese citizen seized and tortured by the CIA, which got him confused with a similarly named wanted terrorist. Rendition’s plot hews shockingly close to that case, but the movie takes its cues less from life than from Syriana, whose mushrooming global subplots, parallel sequences and massive ensembles have set the kinetic template for a slew of movies (Munich, The Kingdom, with Brian De Palma’s Redacted still to come) that have done more to revive the fatigued action genre than to shed light on America’s gift for making Middle Eastern trouble worse. Unlike Syriana and Hood’s equally propulsive, but far more immediate, gangster picture, Tsotsi, which was set in his native South Africa, Rendition feels generic and lackluster, more devoted to its preening structural twist than to a tacked-on subplot designed to show that Islamist fundamentalists are people too. If the movie has a subject or a sensibility, it’s American guilt, not only about allowing the erosion of civil rights at home, but about further fouling up the Wild West that is the Middle East.

As with so many movies of its kind, Rendition’s guilt is tainted by the inevitable arrival, amid all the ugly-American careerists scurrying around Washington, of a good American to sort things out. Except that Jake Gyllenhaal, as the young novice deputed to supervise Anwar’s interrogation, is such a glassy-eyed cipher that the only thing I could think of as he crept toward epiphany was, “God, Donnie Darko is turning into Christopher Walken.”

RENDITION | Directed by GAVIN HOOD | Written by KELLEY SANE | Produced by STEVE GOLIN and MARCUS VISCIDI | Released by New Line Cinema | Citywide

Reach the writer at etaylor@laweekly.com

Related Content

Now Showing

  1. Wed 16
  2. Thu 17
  3. Fri 18
  4. Sat 19
  5. Sun 20
  6. Mon 21
  7. Tue 22

    Find capsule reviews, showtimes & tickets for all films in town.

    Sponsored by Fandor

Box Office

Scores provided by Rotten Tomatoes

Join My Voice Nation for free stuff, concert and dining info & more!


  • Nicolas Cage's 10 Best Movie Roles
    As video-on-demand continues to become the preferred route of distribution for a certain kind of independent film, much is being made of Nicolas Cage's willingness to slum for a paycheck, with recent examples including already-forgotten, small-screen-friendly items like Seeking Justice, Trespass, Stolen, and The Frozen Ground. (His character names in these projects -- Will Gerard, Kyle Miller, Will Montgomery, and Jack Halcombe -- are as interchangeable as the titles of the films.) Aside from citing the obvious appeal of doing work for money (a defense Cage himself brought up in a recent interview with The Guardian), it's also possible to back Cage by acknowledging the consistency with which he's taken on "serious" roles over the years.

    David Gordon Green's Joe, which hits limited release this weekend (more details on that here), marks the latest instance of this trend, with Cage giving a reportedly subdued performance as an ex-con named Joe Ransom. In that spirit, we've put together a rundown of some of the actor's finest performances, all of which serve as proof that, though his over-the-top inclinations may make for a side-splitting YouTube compilation, Cage has amassed a career that few contemporary actors can equal. This list is hardly airtight in its exclusivity, so a few honorable mentions ought to go out to a pair of Cage's deliriously uneven auteur collaborations (David Lynch's Wild at Heart, Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes), 1983's Valley Girl, 1987's Moonstruck, and Alex Proyas's Knowing (a favorite of the late Roger Ebert).

    --Danny King
  • Ten Enduring Conspiracy Thrillers
    With the approaching release this week of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, many critics, including L.A. Weekly’s own Amy Nicholson, have noted the film’s similarities (starting with the obvious: Robert Redford) to the string of conspiracy thrillers that dominated American cinema during the 1970s. With that in mind, we’ve compiled a list of ten of the most enduring entries in the genre -- most of them coming from the ‘70s, but with a few early-‘80s holdouts added in for good measure. This is by no means an exclusive list, and more recent films like Roger Donaldson’s No Way Out (1987), Jacques Rivette’s Secret Defense (1998), Tony Scott’s Enemy of the State (1998), Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana (2005), and Redford’s own The Company You Keep (2012) speak to how well the genre has sustained itself over time. Words by Danny King.
  • Behind the Scenes of Muppets Most Wanted
    "The endurance of the Muppets isn't just the result of the creative skills of Henson and collaborators like Frank Oz, or of smart business decisions, or of sheer dumb luck," writes this paper's film critic Stephanie Zacharek in her review of Muppets Most Wanted. "It's simply that the Muppets are just ever so slightly, or maybe even totally, mad. Man, woman, child: Who can resist them? Even TV-watching cats are drawn to their frisky hippety-hopping and flutey, gravely, squeaky, squawky voices." Go behind the scenes with the hippety-hopping Muppets with these images.

    Read our full Muppets Most Wanted movie review.

Now Trending