Review: Rendition

As a feature film about the evils of political torture, "Rendition" (IMDb listing) is crude and shrill. As a thriller, it's a complete snooze. It sounds unfair to nail a do-gooder film such as this to the wall, but rarely do you find a ripped-from-the-headlines motion picture as bloodless and pedestrian. My apologies to "The Kingdom."

On his way from South Africa to his Chicago home to see his wife (Reese Witherspoon) and child, engineer Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally) is detained by US (Jake Gyllenhaal) and North African (Yigal Naor) agents hunting for a connection to a recent terrorist bombing. Anwar is tortured without much success, while his concerned wife starts knocking on the doors of government officials (Peter Sarsgaard and Alan Arkin), leading to the mastermind of the detention: WASPy, southern-fried CIA head stooge Corrinne Whitman (Meryl Streep). Meanwhile, a terrorist group grows in power and radical might, ticking down the clock to when they will strike again.

It should be noted that if you plan to see "Rendition" for the acting efforts of Gyllenhaal, Witherspoon, or Streep, remember to bring a magazine with you to the cinema. It shouldn't count against "Rendition" that the A-list talents have glorified cameos in the final film (the bulk of the picture makes time with the terrorists), yet it's a part of a larger problem with the picture: too many characters running too many mind games.

"Rendition" is director Gavin Hood's Hollywood-bred follow-up to his South African drama, "Tsotsi," and I would love to know what happened to the man's sense of self-respect. "Rendition" is a soulless sermon on wrongful imprisonment, torture, and the cyclical nature of terrorism. If you've read these elements in a movie description before, welcome to fall 2007, where every other film appears to be about the Middle East battle grounds, interchanging only the casts. Heavens, I never thought I'd be so excited to see "Saw IV."

Granted, Hood is working with a massively knotted screenplay by Kelley Sane, who is attempting to expose the chilling underworld of sophisticated, politically-endorsed torture in the context of a softball basic cable thriller with characters situated all over the globe. Trouble is, the suspense elements are all DOA due to the lethargic pace of the film, and the shocking reveals of injustice lose their effect the way Hood thickly underlines the indignity of it all. The very act of Extraordinary Rendition, with all of its complications and disturbing results, deserves a much more frightening discussion than this film bothers to offer.

Sane's script undermines itself with wasteful time-bending theatrics intended to allow the film an ending of surprise it hasn't earned. The acting is often atrocious, gasbag stuff (with the exception of, as always, Streep), meant to snag Oscars or, in Witherspoon's case, an opportunity to remind the Academy to request she return the one she's got. "Rendition" also doesn't contain an ounce of bravery with its subject matter, preferring a wounded lamb syndrome with its characters instead of asking serious questions of policy or guilt (a topic that sort of shimmies out of the picture by the end).

I think it's downright astounding that the man who gave "Tsotsi" such life and emotional heft could direct such a flaccid, politically clueless film. "Rendition" wastes a serious amount of time and effort force-feeding the viewer lessons on how injustice breeds contempt. For the sequel, I hear the producers plan to explore how fire is hot and water is wet.

Filmfodder Grade: D-