Sam Emerson, New Line Cinema
Reese Witherspoon plays Isabella, the pregnant wife of an American citizen suspected in a terrorist bombing, in "Rendition."
RENDITION — ** — Jake Gyllenhaal, Reese Witherspoon, Peter Sarsgaard; with English subtitles (North African dialects); rated R (violence, torture, profanity, nudity, gore, brief sex)

"Rendition" is one of the least energetic and most sluggish movies in recent memory. In fact, even the cast of this political thriller doesn't seem too excited about it.

That might not be so criminal if that cast didn't boast three A-list Oscar-winners — Reese Witherspoon, Meryl Streep and Alan Arkin. And two notable up-and-comers — Jake Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard.

Yet there's only so much they can do with material this manipulative and contrived.

Gyllenhaal stars as Douglas Freeman, a CIA analyst who's recently earned a promotion, since his predecessor was killed in a terrorist bombing in an unidentified North African country. He may not last long in his new job, though. Douglas is horrified to witness the interrogation of Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally), an American citizen the CIA and local authorities believe may have been involved in the bombing.

Meanwhile, Anwar's pregnant wife, Isabella (Witherspoon), is worried because he hasn't returned from a recent business trip. So she's appealed to a longtime friend, congressional aide Alan Smith (Sarsgaard), to pressure authorities to investigate.

There's already plenty of material, but the filmmakers also throw in a Romeo and Juliet-style subplot about two seemingly unconnected characters (Moa Khouas and Zineb Oukach). However, certain information regarding that subplot is withheld from the audience, and its revelation completely changes the film's complexion. It's a sour-note, melodramatic cheat.

The performances are surprisingly lackluster. Witherspoon practically sleepwalks through the whole thing, as does Gyllenhaal.

The movie's one really good scene is an intense verbal confrontation between Sarsgaard's character and the CIA chief played by Streep. If the whole film had this much tension, it might have really been something.

"Rendition" is rated R for strong scenes of violence (a bombing, shootings and some vehicular mayhem), scenes of torture and interrogation, strong sexual profanity, male nudity, blood and gore, some brief sex, and some substance use (alcohol and a hookah). Running time: 120 minutes.

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