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 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.
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, who 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.
Like 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."