Kandahar (United States, 2023)

May 25, 2023
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Kandahar Poster

Kandahar is one of those movies that exists without having a compelling reason for doing do. As a war movie, it’s not especially insightful or gut-wrenching. As an action film, it lacks energy, momentum, and consistency. As a drama, it feels artificial and manipulative. To be fair, there are times when it generates some excitement and/or suspense, but those instances are short-lived. The ending relies on a painful deus ex machina and several underdeveloped subplots conclude in unsatisfactory fashions. Ironically, it can be argued that the movie fails in part because it tries to be something other than “Gerard Butler flexes his muscles, grabs a gun, and kills a lot of people.” In the end, something simpler might have worked better.

Although there are a fair number of things the movie gets wrong, one thing it accomplishes is to effectively delineate the absolute chaos that exists in modern-day Afghanistan, where alliances shift at the drop of a hat and it’s never clear whether “friends” share ideologies or are temporarily working together on the basis of the philosophy that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Beyond the two primary characters, it’s never clear who fits into the “good guy/bad guy” category. There are betrayals and things that look like betrayals but really aren’t.

The director, Ric Roman Waugh, has recently attached himself to Butler, helming the actor’s third Has Fallen movie, Angel Has Fallen, as well as Greenland. (In between, he made the more interesting National Champions, which was low-budget and devoid of anything resembling an action sequence.) Kandahar represents more of a step sideways than a move forward or backward. Coming out with minimal publicity in an oversaturated early summer market, it’s hard to see how this will impact either Butler or Waugh’s careers. It seems destined for a quick shift to streaming and an even quicker relegation to some service’s back catalog.

The story begins with a prologue set in Iran that introduces undercover CIA agent Tom Harris (Butler). After completing his assignment – enabling the destruction of a hidden nuclear plant – Tom is sent to Afghanistan by his handler (Travis Fimmel), where he is informed that his work isn’t yet completed. Paired with an interpreter (Navid Negahban), Tom’s mission becomes a flight for life when his identity is compromised via leaked secret documents. He is now being hunted by a top Iranian operative (Bahador Foladi), the head of an elite task force (Ali Fazal), and various elements of the Taliban and ISIS. His goal: a 400-mile trek through enemy territory to Kandahar, where a plane awaits to transport him to safety.

The screenplay for Kandahar, written by former military intelligence officer Mitchell LaFortune, is based on the writer’s experiences in the field during the 2013 Snowden leaks. This lends a degree of authenticity to some of the proceedings. Unfortunately, Hollywood tropes and conventions overwhelm verisimilitude with distressing frequency. The relationship between Tom and his interpreter is given a “buddy movie” treatment with the latter’s characterization being diminished. Several confrontations feel almost like outtakes from a cut-rate James Bond film (although the skirmish using night goggles creates a sense of tension). Kandahar also features lengthy expository passages that slow things down too much. A movie like this – essentially a race to the finish line between the pursued and the pursuers – should have a breakneck pace throughout.

Coincidentally, this is the second movie to arrive in theaters in less than a month about a white military man trapped in hostile territory in Afghanistan with only a native translator for a companion. The other film, Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant, is an all-around stronger production despite the obvious similarities.

Butler’s performance is notably restrained, which works in the context of the story. This isn’t Rambo: First Blood Part II. It’s questionable, however, whether he’s the right actor to play the part. The payoff at the end rings hollow, although this could be more a problem with the writing than with how Butler plays the scene. Regardless, he was better in a film released earlier this year, Plane, even though that movie as a whole isn’t superior to this one. Both films fall into the “passable diversion” category – productions capable of staving off boredom if streamed at home. As a theatrical destination, however, Kandahar isn’t worth the trip.

Kandahar (United States, 2023)

Director: Ric Roman Waugh
Cast: Gerard Butler, Navid Negahban, Ali Fazal, Bahador Foladi, Nina Touissant-White, Travis Fimmel
Screenplay: Mitchell LaFortune
Cinematography: MacGregor
Music: David Barry
U.S. Distributor: Open Road Films
Run Time: 2:00
U.S. Release Date: 2023-05-26
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence)
Genre: Action/Thriller
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1