Review: ‘Kandahar’ is easily the year’s second-best movie about a grizzled hero extracting an Afghan translator
Gerard Butler would much rather be known as the Tom Hanks of action movies than the king of the B-movie, but it can’t be denied that he’s quietly been on quite the hot streak recently, with Copshop, Greenland, and Plane ranking as three of his best-reviewed action thrillers ever. However, the wheels come off a little with Kandahar, but that’s to be expected when the shadow of a vastly superior film looms overhead.
Re-teaming with Angel Has Fallen and Greenland director Ric Roman Waugh for a third time, the story finds Butler’s undercover CIA operative Tom Harris on the run when his cover is blown. With Navid Negahban’s translator along for the ride, the unlikely duo face the daunting task of making it to an extraction point in the titular city, all while enemies are breathing down their necks at every turn.
Through absolutely no fault of its own, though, Kandahar suffers by coming so soon after Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant. The stories are eerily similar – with the latter finding Jake Gyllenhaal plunging himself back behind enemy lines in order to secure the safety of his translator – and it ranks as the single top-rated feature of the filmmaker’s entire career on Rotten Tomatoes.
As mentioned, that’s got absolutely nothing to do with watching Kandahar in isolation, but it’s hard to shake off the comparisons if you’ve seen both. That being said, Butler is as reliably grizzled as ever, while Waugh deserves credit for taking a different approach to the narrative. It isn’t quite what you think it is, but it also kind of is at the same time, which sums up the indecisively indifferent nature of the movie as a whole.
Kandahar is additionally the first major American production to release in theaters having shot entirely in Saudi Arabia, and it can’t be denied that Waugh and his team make great use of the vast landscapes and dust-bitten terrain at their disposal. There’s a distinct look about the visuals, which is to be expected when the director is literally filming in uncharted territory for Hollywood, and a refreshing reliance on using practical effects whenever and wherever possible helps punch up the standard run/gun/drive/explosion formula.
It isn’t quite Rashomon, but Kandahar nonetheless does an admirable job of deviating from the expected tropes of a Butler-driven genre film by offering several different perspectives on its narrative. Tom pulls off a covert job that ultimately leads to his identity being exposed, which in most cases leads to the bad guys hunting down the good guys, who then fight for their lives no questions asked.
However, as well as offering insight into the viewpoint of Negahban’s translator, we also see how Travis Fimmel’s handler Roman Chalmers handles the situation, which includes the butting of heads with CIA superiors over how to deal with one of their agents being exposed in such public and sociopolitically scandalous fashion. Ali Fazal also makes a solid fist of generating story-wide conflict and playing both sides as the charismatic Kahil, with the local and international players laying the foundations for a rip-roaring adventure that’s nowhere near as straightforward as it seems.
There are thematic questions that end up being asked throughout, but Kandahar never truly commits to offering a definitive answer. Obviously, that can be explained away by its very nature, because an American-funded and star-powered actioner being shot in a place as contentious as Saudi Arabia unfolding in Afghanistan while being embedded in the tensions of the Middle East isn’t required – or even remotely expected – to ruminate on an issue that’s been at the forefront of the real-world conversation for decades.
It’s nowhere near being bottom-tier Butler, but it’s hardly a befitting addition to his surprisingly strong recent offerings, either. Instead, Kandahar exists in this weird vacuum where it both is and isn’t exactly what was promised – often in the space of a single scene – and at no point does it ever truly manage to shake off the indecision that plagues everything from the character beats and plot developments to the explosive shootout sequences and ultimate resolution. The grandstanding final showdown makes complete sense within the context of the inbuilt world and everything we’ve been told over the previous two hours, but it still manages to come across as somewhat forced and predictable.
Kandahar isn’t a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination; with Waugh evidently luxuriating in the chance to broaden the scope, scale, and ambition he’s been given by breaking new ground for Hollywood in Saudi Arabia in what’s inarguably a well-shot and impeccably-crafted slab of meaty motion picture pyrotechnics. However, it’s a long way away from being the best possible version of itself, although Butler completionists will get a kick out of seeing the leading man and producer doing what he does best, even if he’s already arguably done it better this year already.
'Kandahar' finds Gerard Butler doing what he does best, and while there are some admirable attempts to deviate from formula, the end result isn't going to be regarded among the action hero's top tier.