Ordinary Rendition

It's not torture, but the latest Mideast thriller is as conventional as they come.

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Directed by Gavin Hood. Written by Kelley Sane. Starring Reese Witherspoon, Jake Gyllenhaal, Omar Metwally, Igal Naor, Peter Sarsgaard, and Meryl Streep. Rated R. Opens Friday.
"A sequel to Sweet Home Alabama? I'm in."
"A sequel to Sweet Home Alabama? I'm in."

Late in Rendition, a tense Washington exchange takes place about the legitimacy of sending dark-skinned Americans to secret prisons abroad. On one side is a young senatorial aide (Peter Sarsgaard), on the other the CIA suit in charge of foreign operations (Meryl Streep). He throws the Constitution at her; she invokes 9/11.

There's a genuinely uncomfortable discussion to be had here, not only about government violations of human and civil rights, but also about whether it's possible to gain intelligence about terrorism without coercion. But don't imagine that you'll find much beyond lip service in this slick thriller directed by Gavin Hood. Rendition is far more interested in playing abduction and torture for all they're worth.

The movie turns on the abduction of Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally), a slender, sensitive Egyptian American chemical engineer, whose only good fortune is to be married to a woman played by Reese Witherspoon. Nabbed by muscled he-men at a stateside airport, Anwar vanishes from the passenger list. We find him naked, shackled, and manhandled in exhaustive detail "somewhere in northern Africa." Morocco, actually (it all looks the same to Hollywood), with brilliant sunsets, satellite dishes, narrow alleys teeming with trainee suicide bombers, and throbbing Arab dirges on the soundtrack.

Rendition's plot hews quite close to a recent Supreme Court case, wherein the court upheld the Bush administration's squelching of a lawsuit brought by a German Lebanese citizen seized and tortured by the CIA. 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. But unlike Syriana, Rendition feels generic and lackluster, more devoted to its preening structural twist than to a tacked-on subplot designed to show that Islamic 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.

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