A film review by Craig J. Koban July 26, 2023


2023, R, 119 mins.

Gerard Butler as Tom Harris  /  Navid Negahban as Mo  /  Ali Fazal as Kahil  /  Bahador Foladi as Farzad Asadi  /  Olivia-Mai Barrett as Ida Harris  /  Rebecca Calder as Corrine Harris  /  Vassilis Koukalani as Bashar  /  Hakeem Jomah as Rasoul

Directed by Ric Roman Waugh  /  Written by Mitchell LaFortune

KANDAHAR has a few things going against it.  

Firstly, it wants to have its cake and eat it too in terms of yearning to simultaneously be a thrilling Gerard Butler action film vehicle and a sobering take on modern war and America's dicey involvement in foreign countries.  

Secondly, the film is shockingly similar to the much better and recently released GUY RITCHIE'S THE COVENANT, which also explored an American military man and his relationship with a foreign translator.  

Thirdly, KANDAHAR is equally similar to Butler's own PLANE (a very underrated survival thriller from this past January).  Both films have heroes played by Butler that are desperately trying to stay alive on foreign soil so they can return home stateside to be reunited with their respective teenage daughters and re-start a life of normalcy away from combat.  

There's a formulaic pattern that's starting to emerge here with the former 300 star's resume.     

KANDAHAR is director Ric Roman Waugh's third collaboration with Bulter (they previously made GREENLAND and ANGEL HAS FALLEN, the worst in that action trilogy), and, to his credit, the star here acclimates himself well as a rock solid anchor in this film's story.  Instead of playing a one-man kick ass army here, Butler (somewhat like he did in PLANE) opts to dial down the intensity a bit to play a more grounded and world-weary hero.  That, and Waugh does drum up a few pulse pounding sequences of interest.  There are also commendable attempts (albeit failed) to make KANDAHAR more of an intimate character study than a brainless shoot-em-up thriller on pure auto-pilot.  The problem with the film, however, is that it never really germinates much interest as a war story, nor is it very insightful.  Its dramatic elements feel either malnourished or manufactured, which leaves us with the action, and the film's set-pieces are too few and far between to have a sizeable and memorable impact.  The screenplay by Mitchell LaFortune - a former military intelligence officer who obviously knows his way around this material - has so much untapped potential, but it's riddled with so many tired genre conventions that it fails to attain any sizeable pathos that it wants to.

Still, Butler is in his fine element as Tom, a CIA operative that's been sent to Iran on a mission to help destroy a nuclear reactor (he does so by inserting malware into the reactor's computer).  The mission for this undercover agent proves to be successful, which leaves Tom eager to pack his bags, return home to America, and finally be back with his estranged family, who are growing increasingly tired of him being too far away at work.  Predictably, though, Tom is primed for one last assignment by his handler, Roman (Travis Fimmel), with promises of a large payday that helps pave the way for his family's long-term financial security.  His mission involves entering a hostile Afghanistan with his cover intact, but that changes when a journalist that was covering Tom's Iran mission (Nina Toussaint-White) is kidnapped, making his cover blown.  While in Afghanistan, Tom is partnered with Mo (Navid Nagahban), a translator who has just recently returned to the country in search of his wife's missing sister.  Realizing that time and safety are of the essence, Tom and Mo must navigate the hostile enemy-riddled terrain to get to his newly appointed extraction point in Kandahar...and they must do so in under 30 hours.  With Pakistani and Iranian secret agents and the Taliban hot on their heels, Tom and Mo must learn to work together to stay alive, and in the process, Tom learns of his partner's hellish personal trauma that was caused by the Taliban now breathing down their necks.   



I enjoyed the opening sections of KANDAHAR because of how they establish how Tom can work in a deadly pressure cooker of a situation while posing as a telecommunication IT expert (that's his cover to plant the aforementioned malware to sabotage that Iranian nuclear reactor).  The scene also reiterates why I think Butler is a criminally undervalued performer in these types of films. He always brings a stalwart confidence and gritty determination to these roles (which are becoming a dime a dozen for him), but he's so dialled in and understated in them that he manages to bring a modest level of relatable humanity to these films, even when they descend into absurd chaos.  The tough-vulnerability that the star evokes in this film - and many of his others - helps iron out some of KANDAHAR's creative wrinkles.  The screenplay's ability to understand and relay some of the nightmarish day-to-day realities of present day Afghanistan is commendable as well.  The film is in no rush to get from one bombastic action scene to the next and shows restraint in being patient to establish these characters and showing the tense power-play dynamics that exist between them in a very uncertain region of the world where allies are in short supply.  

But, wow, is this script even tainted by so many flavorless genre troupes that makes getting through this would-be compelling political action thriller an ordeal.  We get a resourceful secret agent with a particular set of skills that's so infatuated with his job and every new mission that his wife wants to divorce him and his daughter is slowly growing to resent him.  Then there are the clock-ticking elements of Tom getting just a finite amount of time time to get on a plane to make it home to attend his daughter's graduation (in pure Action Film Clichés 101, the hero always has something that impedes him from making his promise to finally spend time with his child).  Then we have the hero being forced to team up with someone from a different race and culture and - wouldn't ya know it? - they're polar opposites in most respects.  When faced with being killed by their multiple adversaries, Tom and Mo need to bond and try to respect one another in order to get out of their pickle of a deadly situation alive.   There has been ample discussion lately in industry circles about the dangers of AI infiltrating creative aspects of movie making, especially on the scripting scale.  KANDAHAR definitely seems like it was written by a program that has copied and pasted overused elements from countless other better films before it.   

At least KANDAHAR looks pretty good and is beautifully shot by cinematographer Miguel de Olaso (known professionally as MacGregor); he makes some of the more inhospitable terrain of Afghanistan and its desert vistas kind of eerily picturesque (the entire movie was thanklessly shot on location, and it shows).  Waugh does drum up some compelling action scenes too, like a memorable one that pits Tom having a cat and mouse game with a military helicopter that's from a night vision goggles point of view (gotta admit...pretty nifty).  The film builds to a modestly exciting showdown between Tom and the head of an elite task force (Ali Fazal) that has been in pure Terminator mode throughout the film in his pursuit to locate and eliminate Tom and Mo.  Unfortunately, KANDAHAR won't really appease Butler action film fans because its said action is a bit too fleeting and spaced apart, not to mention that anyone else wanting a serious examination of the geopolitics of this story (which Waugh tries and struggles to maintain) will also come out of the film equally let down.  Action films require well-oiled and sustained set-pieces and political thrillers need an intelligently hard-boiled focus on the themes at hand.  KANDAHAR seems sheepishly caught between both hemispheres and without an exit strategy.  

Plus, when all is said and done, I can't consciously recommend this film when a much, much better version of it has already come out this year in THE COVENANT, which boasted better production values, finer scripting, and more thoughtful performances and handling of its themes of a jaded military man that befriends a foreign translator while going through hell and back with him.  And Ritchie's film had a lot more to say about America's polarizing relationship with Afghanistan and how they didn't have the best of relationships with local translators, who were mostly kicked to the curb when they weren't deemed useful anymore.  If you've seen THE COVENANT, then there's no reason to see the vastly inferior KANDAHAR.  Not only that, but if you're just looking for a no-nonsense pulpy action picture with a retrograde flavor that robustly gets the job done, then seek out PLANE and just avoid this.  KANDAHAR has a lot it wants to do and say during its two hours, but it lacks a strong visceral follow-through and a confident voice.   It's listlessly by-the-numbers and serviceable in parts, but not much else. 

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