THE STORY – An undercover CIA operative gets stuck in hostile territory in Afghanistan after his mission is exposed. Accompanied by his translator, he must fight enemy combatants as he tries to reach an extraction point in Kandahar.
THE CAST – Gerard Butler, Navid Negahban, Ali Fazal, Bahador Foladi, Nina Toussaint-White, Vassilis Koukalani, Mark Arnold, Corey Johnson, Ravi Aujla, Ray Haratian, Tom Rhys Harries & Travis Fimmel
THE TEAM – Ric Roman Waugh (Director) & Mitchell LaFortune (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 120 Minutes
It’s a fairly common observation that the cinematic landscape can feel barren of original ideas. Most of the time, this is in relation to a glut of recognizable IP that is continually churned out year after year. However, some instances are simply down to a general premise that seems impossibly borrowed and repackaged in a short amount of time. Mere weeks ago, we saw the release of “Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant,” which focused on an elite soldier trapped behind enemy lines and the dangerous journey he and his interpreter take in order to reach a safe harbor. Now “Kandahar” bows and showcases a plot that mirrors many of these elements. These films share more than a mechanical structure. Unfortunately, this piece is also a mostly unremarkable affair that can’t be saved by what little spectacle it provides.
This particular outing centers around Tom Harris (Gerard Butler), a CIA operative working covert missions in Afghanistan. His most recent endeavor was to hack into the systems of a nuclear facility being developed and cause a catastrophic overload that would lead to its destruction. This has put the authorities on a manhunt to find the responsible parties. While on another assignment that pairs him with a local interpreter named Mo (Navid Negahban), an intel leak exposes Harris. The two must make the trek to Kandahar, where a military escort will be waiting to take them out of the country. However, it is hundreds of miles in between, filled with the ferocious might of the Afghan forces and with ruthless Pakistani agent Kahil (Ali Fazal) working on behalf of his own country’s interests with this explosive case. It is a race against the clock for these men to survive to the end.
There is an initial sense of optimism when going into this film since the last time this director and star collaborated, and they produced “Greenland.” That was a finely crafted disaster picture whose epic sequences were also presented in a grounded, engaging manner. Unfortunately, such results are not replicated here. Ric Roman Waugh does his best to craft some captivating presentations, and credit should be given to his ability to competently block these scenes that carry a compelling momentum. The set pieces are not particularly extraordinary to witness, but they aren’t languid either. Waugh has a keen sense of keeping the action dynamic, even if it barely crosses the entertainment threshold. These moments are buried within usual spy-thriller aesthetics that are more anonymous until a finale that does manage to bring a well-executed., proper scale to the story.
The more significant issue at hand is undoubtedly the script by Mitchell LaFortune. Very little in this narrative feels unique in its perspective and mainly sets to pit its pedestrian characters against each other in muddled allegiances that barely arouse any intrigue. While it is interesting to see a light exploration of the region’s fragile political structure since the withdrawal of American forces, that idea is not explored thoroughly to be a compelling theme. While the light characterization is sometimes tolerable in these types of films, it should not come at the expense of creating an enticing atmosphere for these participants to exist within. This is especially felt with Mo, who initially made out to be a co-lead of this story but is reduced to one-dimensional motivations when he is not hastily moved to the background. The indulgence of an emotionally sentimental ending is completely unearned since the writing is hollow and mundane.
Very few would ever say that Butler is a fantastic actor. He primarily exists to fulfill an archetype that carries a film’s tone more than its emotional center. Once again, the last pairing with this director did manifest something a tad more alluring than what is shown here, which absolutely returns him to the realm of the generic protagonist. It’s what is required but nothing more impactful. Negahban is sadly forced to merely wander around, mostly looking either confused or disinterested, since the role offers very little for him on the page. Fazal also has a pretty underdeveloped part but maintains a beguiling screen presence that captures an infectious swagger. The rest of the supporting ensemble doesn’t leave much impression, save for Bahador Foladi as one of the high-ranking security officials who embodies a conflicted determination that one desperately wishes was utilized more.
The biggest disappointment of “Kandahar” is how empty the product ultimately feels by the time it’s over. It’s a shame because this talent has defied the odds before and given a work that can exist within traditional genre tropes while also finding inventive avenues to make the overall framework more striking. There is much more of the former here than the latter, sadly. While occasional bursts of excitement draw one back into the plight, they are short-lived reprieves from the banal displays that not even the actors can salvage. The foundation might seem tiresome, but there are obviously ways to make this a far more inviting enterprise that is not mined here for greater effect.