Film Review – Kandahar
At this point in his career, Gerard Butler has settled comfortably into a string of mid-budget action thrillers. That’s not a bad thing, necessarily. In a time where theaters are crowded with tentpole superhero franchises, remakes, and sequels, Butler’s work has offered audiences a throwback alternative. Some turn out to be memorable, such as London Has Fallen (2016) and Den of Thieves (2018). Others, not so much. His latest, Kandahar (2023) sits somewhere in the middle. On a purely aesthetic basis, the action is sleek – opting for tangible, realistic-looking effects as opposed to an overly CGI lightshow. Beyond the surface, however, the film plays by the numbers. In the moment, we may get wrapped up in the energy and pacing. But once it’s over, it slips from our memory immediately.
Directed by Ric Roman Waugh and written by Mitchell LaFortune, the film is structured as a straight-forward survival tale set in the Middle East. Butler plays Tom, a covert operative working with the CIA. Tom’s job is to create havoc in enemy territory. In the opening scene, we see him setting a device to take down an Iranian nuclear plant. The mission is a success, but it leads to a host of problems in terms of escape. Iranian agents – led by Farzad Asadi (Bahador Foladi) are dispatched to apprehend Tom and his associates. Meanwhile, the Taliban in Afghanistan have taken notice and have gone hunting as well. And if that weren’t enough, a mercenary named Kahil (Ali Fazal) is sent from Pakistan to go after Tom also! Seems Tom has made enemies in all the wrong places! Alongside his Afghan translator, Mohammad (Navid Negahban), Tom sets his sights for the city of Kandahar, where an extraction point awaits to get him and Mohammad to safety.
That’s a lot of moving parts for a story that basically requires characters to get from Point A to Point B. The writing muddles the various organizations going after Tom and Mohammad. Maybe this is meant to reflect the instability of the region, but it doesn’t seem that way. Having multiple factions bickering with one another despite having the same goal leaves the narrative feeling messy. This disorder is also reflected in the character development. The roles are painted with broad strokes – depicted as the typical “men on a mission” who don’t have time for their families. Characters are given scenes in which they are pulled between their work and their personal lives. These moments unfold like standard operating procedure rather than legitimate drama. It becomes almost comical how many times we see Tom or Farzad stuck on the phone with their wives asking when they will be coming home.
While Butler gets top billing, it’s Navid Negahban’s Mohammad that turns out to be the most interesting character. Mohammad is the one person who doesn’t feel like a stereotype, but a fleshed out human being with actual, empathetic motivations. Mohammad loves the country of his birth but experienced much tragedy from it. He was finally forced to flee due to the violence. Mohammad has returned to Afghanistan not only as Tom’s interpreter, but in hopes of finding his sister-in-law, who has vanished without a trace. Negahban’s performance gives the character dramatic resonance, even though he is regulated to second fiddle. This is best exemplified when Tom and Mohammad have a run in with a local warlord. The strain on Mohammad’s face reflects his inner conflict. He has certain feelings toward the warlord but knows the slightest misstep could lead to catastrophe. Negahban gives life to a character who – in lesser hands – ran the risk of simply being an afterthought.
In terms of action, the production makes the most of the surrounding desert environments. The film was shot on location in Saudi Arabia, and the cinematography (MacGregor) takes ample opportunity to showcase the landscapes. There are abundant wide-angle shots, placing characters front and center as the open ranges overwhelm them in the background. Waugh’s direction utilizes the space, capturing actors and action in the same frame. During one critical scene, both Butler and Negahban huddle together as a series of explosions happen in the far distance, blanketing the sky with dirt and sand. The tone isn’t too unlike that of a Western, in which the desert and hot sun play an active role. Tom and Mohammad must escape their pursuers and a place that is just as dangerous as it is beautiful. As gorgeous as the sand may appear, if one’s car breaks down or food runs out, it can also become a deathtrap.
Gerard Butler is at his best when he plays characters with simple, easy to understand motivations. “Protect my family,” “Get to safety,” “Take down my adversaries” – these are the kind of goals that Butler can take and run with to full capacity. Even when his roles call from him to do outlandish feats, if we understand where he is coming from, we can buy just about anything he does. There is no better example than a nighttime scene where Tom and Mohammad try to outrun a helicopter hot on their tail. Making the most of his night vision goggles and handheld explosives, Butler gives Tom the fortitude to even the odds. Yes, one man taking on an armed chopper is an impossible match up to begin with, but at least Butler sells it for all its worth. The key image is an explosion that lights up the sky like a firecracker, with Butler’s silhouette plastered in front of it. It’s such a ridiculous moment that I smiled at the absurdity of it all.
Kandahar is an efficient and glossy action thriller…as long as we don’t think about it too much. Once we go over how all the pieces fit is when things fall apart. The immediacy of the action – filled with practical effects and impressive stunt work – is what people will come for. That alone maybe worth the price of admission.