As a praiseworthy effort to enlighten viewers about peaceful practice of the Muslim faith and lesser-known aspects of domestic terrorism, Sleeper Cell
succeeds as a conventional thriller with its heart in the right place. Originally broadcast in late 2005, Showtimes's 10-hour limited series owes more to familiar Hollywood plotlines than to the precise realities of radical extremism, and authenticity frequently takes a backseat to well-crafted suspense. So, while it may not earn a high score in terms of absolute realism, the series works far better on an emotional level, beginning with the revelation that newly released prisoner Darwyn Al-Sayeed (Michael Ealy, from Barbershop
and Their Eyes Were Watching God
) is actually an undercover FBI agent and practicing Muslim, recruited to infiltrate a sleeper cell of Islamic radical extremists led by Farik (played by Israeli-born actor Oded Fehr, from The Mummy
and The Mummy Returns
), the mastermind of a Jihadist plot to detonate a chemical bomb in a crowded Los Angeles sports arena. Representing a broad spectrum of anti-American sentiments, Farik's band of holy warriors includes a hot-tempered Frenchman (Alex Nesic), a Bosnian chemist (Henri Lubatti), and a young, Berkeley-born American (Blake Shields) with a post-military beef against the U.S. government. While clandestinely reporting to his FBI handler (James LeGros), Darwyn is forced into deadly circumstances that continuously threaten to blow his cover and get him killed. His ill-advised romance with a single mother (Melissa Sagemiller) poses further threat to the integrity of his investigation, which ultimately involves everyone from local LAPD detectives to the senior staff of the White House.
As the terrorist plot unfolds, Sleeper Cell is by turns intense, dramatically involving, and philosophically illuminating as Darwyn struggles to reconcile his undercover activities (which connect him to murder, obstruction of justice, conspiracy, etc.) and his passionate devotion to Islam as a peaceful religion. With a number of Islamic consultants, writers, and directors, series creators Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris (the team responsible for Bulletproof Monk) have admirably attempted to balance national fear of terrorism with a very sympathetic and positive depiction of the law-abiding Muslim majority. In a subtle but somewhat one-dimensional performance, Ealy conveys the spiritual anguish of Darwyn's stressful situation, while Fehr provides stark contrast, portraying Farik as a smart, charismatic source of constant threat, ruling over his fellow terrorists with passionate conviction. As the series nears its powerful two-hour finale, their clash of ideologies plays out like an above-average episode of 24, sharing elements of Reservoir Dogs as each isolated member of the sleeper cell nears his individual fate. With plenty of surprises along the way, Sleeper Cell grabs your attention and never lets go, even when you're aware that a real-life scenario would play by a different set of rules. --Jeff Shannon