Gerard Butler’s CIA-agent-on-the-run thriller aims to be more than a power fantasy, but for all its virtues, it doesn’t stick that landing.
There’s an expected cognitive dissonance that comes with watching a man-on-a-mission genre piece set in the Middle East. Whether it’s a glorified shooting gallery or a power fantasy where the hero stops just short of bleeding red, white, and blue – one needs to practice a mental limbo to either ignore or maybe be pleasantly surprised with the bare minimum concessions to showing the opposite side’s perspectives.
Ric Roman Waugh’s expertly mounted, ambitiously scattered Kandahar is, at its core, a Stagecoach riff. One where our leading man, career CIA operative Tom Harris (Gerard Butler leveraging his soulful full-time divorced dad essence), has 30 hours to make a mad 400-mile dash across an Afghanistan desert from an impossibly large group of following forces. It’s a foolproof premise, yet intriguingly, Kandahar refuses to embrace its conceptual neatness.
Things start typically as we see Tom covertly sabotaging a hidden Iranian nuclear facility disguised as a maintenance worker. Cue a massive explosion half a day later, and numerous factions ranging from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard to ISI and Taliban groups move into action to capture the mystery culprit(s). Not a cut later, and a British reporter (Elnaaz Norouzi) is already on the verge of blowing Tom’s cover thanks to a Pentagon leak.
Meanwhile, CIA fixer Roman (Travis Fimmel cranking up a dead-eyed playboy vibe) cajoles Tom into “one last job” before Tom can barely make it to his daughter’s high school graduation. Travis shacks him up with a hired translator, Mo (Navid Negahban), who grew up in Afghanistan but now lives in the US. Hours later, Tom’s face floods every news channel as the mysterious bomber, and it’s off to the races with Mo on the lam.
It’s here that Mitchell LaFortune’s script (and Waugh’s measured direction) stray from genre expectations, intermittently abandoning Tom and Mo to focus on individual understanding of the forces that will be helping or pursuing the two of them. Often represented by one figurehead, scenes will regularly transition from traditional action sequences to conversations between characters who discuss their motivations and philosophies separate from Tom or Mo. Whereas Iranian Revolutionary Guard leader, Farzad (Bahador Foladi), views this pursuit as qualified justice, others, like a cigar-chomping Afghani warlord, see it as an opportunity to shore up more goodwill with the CIA.
These representations aren’t always involved enough to deserve individual scenes. Some involve extremist groups (with household Fox News acronyms) who are complicated with little more than a bond to others or a conflict between modernist and traditional ideologies. But there’s a concerted attempt at geographic distinction and awareness that counters monolithic conflations about these countries and organizations.
Other scenes pinch more bluntly at Middle Eastern stereotypes, such as when the suave motorcycle-riding ISI agent, Kahil (Ali Fazal), is shown vaping, listening to Future, and dipping into a Mosque. Or, in Kandahar‘s most ridiculous moment, an Afghani government agent swipes right on a dating app while warning the leader of a local Taliban group that they will no longer provide sanctuary if they don’t help find Tom. Waugh shoots each of these conversations with an air of coiled desperation, deftly switching between languages and dialects that indicate other wrinkles in their relationships.
That might suggest that Tom or the CIA’s role would come in for some self-examination akin to political thrillers like Sicario or Syriana. That’s not the case, but a few lines acknowledge the CIA’s hypocrisy in arming different terrorist groups to further their cause, as well as a late beat where Tom has an epiphany about the role of translators with Mo.
Waugh’s direction smooths over Kandahar’s overstuffed perspectives and dead ends, grounding the action and characters while amplifying the picture’s urgency and infusing it with an air of the unknown. Waugh’s command of action is second to none without crossing over into the action movie heroics that have been Butler’s recent bread-and-butter. Waugh and DP MacGregor are sparing with glamour shots, instead preferring moody sequences shot in night vision or the swirling physicality of the terrain.
Paired with David Buckley’s clattering shockwave score—which feels at times like modern Doom Metal, the sound design grants crucial weight to these scenes. There’s an impact to the mortars’ plunk and the tires’ scream that hits harder than some of Kandahar’s multiplex kin with double or triple the budget.
Kandahar is sturdy, Butler brings precisely what he’s supposed to, a few character actors do very nice work, and it looks good. But that’s the trouble—it aspires to be so much more but does not quite make the leap.
Kandahar is now playing in theaters.