Our macho action movie auteurs are starting to reckon with the tragic situation in Afghanistan, which has fallen to the Taliban after the withdrawal of the United States in 2021. On the heels of “Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant” comes Ric Roman Waugh’s “Kandahar” starring Gerard Butler, a brutal actioner set in the lawless land of an Afghanistan crawling with Taliban, ISIS-K and various covert operatives.
But while Butler vehicles are typically lean, mean, action-cinema delivery machines, Waugh’s “Kandahar” is not the usually efficient Butlerian fare such as “Plane,” or even “Greenland,” the previous film on which this director and star collaborated. Yes, Butler does play a sad single dad on his way to his teen daughter’s graduation, much like he did in “Plane” (if he has a flight to catch, something crazy is about to go down), but “Kandahar” is much bigger and broader.
Screenwriter Mitchell LaFortune, a U.S. Army and Defense Intelligence Agency veteran, brings a sense of authenticity to this sprawling and complicated tale of contemporary spy fiction that attempts to encompass warring terrorist factions, fascist regimes, CIA black ops, Pentagon whistleblowers, kidnapped journalists, as well as reckon with the enduring trauma of the 20-year war in Afghanistan.
The premise itself is simple enough: Butler plays Tom Harris, an MI6 agent on loan to the CIA who has been tasked with blowing up an Iranian nuclear reactor by a deep cover operative named Roman (Travis Fimmel). He’s then sent by Roman to Afghanistan for one last gig, but when his cover is blown, he needs to make a quick escape, crossing 400 miles of desert to Kandahar where he will be picked up by a British plane. He has his translator Muhammad (Navid Negahban) in tow, and hot on their heels is Farzad (Bahador Foladi), an emissary from the Iranian supreme leader hoping to capture the spy who destroyed their reactor, and a Pakistani agent from ISIS-K, Kahil (Ali Fazal), who has contracted the Afghani Taliban to help him snatch and grab Tom and sell him on the black market.
It’s a basic chase story, but the first 45 minutes of the film that set up the action are hopelessly convoluted. It’s clear Waugh and LaFortune want to plant a variety of different characters, motivations and backstories, creating a nuanced look at the situation that doesn’t blindly condemn or damn an entire swath of people, but there are one too many storylines, and two too many characters to keep track of as we continually cut away from Tom and Muhammad’s harrowing situation on the road, watched closely by the CIA.
The action that unfolds upon the sweeping desert landscape is part “Lawrence of Arabia” and part “Mad Max” — Waugh borrows shots from that desert-set classic to capture the black-clad Kahil tearing through the desert on a motorcycle, surveying his prey from steep hillsides. Mononymous cinematographer MacGregor captures it all with a busy camera, the lens constantly moving, wobbling and focusing, infusing the proceedings with anxiety. Anguished close-ups dissolve over the desert landscape to the sound of mournful pop ballads to underscore the sorrowful nature of the characters’ circumstances.
“Kandahar” is a step above the Butler B-movie pleasures to which we’ve grown accustomed, but while Waugh and LaFortune attempt to fit the action star into this complex geopolitical narrative, it’s clear they become caught between a realism rock and a Hollywood hard place, succumbing to familiar, if somewhat problematic tropes in order to bring this somewhat unwieldy yarn home. Still, it’s a pleasure to see Butler do his thing opposite a talented array of international superstars — Fazal and Fimmel are standouts — and stretch his specific set of skills into more complex contemporary storytelling, making “Kandahar” worth the trip.
Will Carpenter is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s Arts and Entertainment/Features Reporter. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 307-633-3135. Follow him on Twitter @will_carp_.