Kandahar Synopsis: 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.
Amidst Hollywood’s devaluation of traditional actioners, Gerard Butler stands tall as a throwback to the genre’s heyday. Butler symbolizes the 80s/90s action movie formula to a tee, starring in high-concept, mid-budget fare that delivers a fun twist on the familiar.
He’s gone full Die Hard move to save the president (three times now with the Has Fallen series); he shepherded a deserted plane to safety against an island of bandits (the campy joys of Plane), and he even hunted down an ensemble of thrives in an ode to Michael Man’s Heat (his magnum opus in my opinion, Den of Thieves). While other action heroes continue to indulge in blockbuster projects, Butler’s embrace of this storied tradition cements him as a dynamic movie star.
Butler’s latest romp, Kandahar, finds the actor starring as an undercover CIA agent trying to extract himself and an Afghan translator from war-torn conditions. The affable magnetism of Butler remains everpresent, but Kandahar represents a so-so retread that will likely become a forgotten footnote in the actor’s resume.
Even a lesser Butler project still possesses some strengths. As workaholic Tom Harris, Butler commands the screen as an affable everyman. His undeniable gravity always aligns viewers into his affable orbit. Moreover, the actor conveys an emphatic dramatic intensity in his spewing of plot jargon lines and sappily sentimental speeches, with his sheer force of nature as a performer consistently transforming archetype roles into lived-in characters. Navid Negahban is equally compelling as a translator stuck in his undercover assignment, capturing the anguish and desperation of a man tied down to his service responsibilities. Both performers form a dynamic rapport onscreen as kindred spirits bonded together against insurmountable odds.
To Kandahar’s credit, the film also showcases sensitivity in approaching contemporary subject matter with the War in Afghanistan. Several action films from bygone eras utilized their timely pastiches to promote jingoistic propaganda and dated stereotypes. Here, director Ric Roman Waugh and screenwriter/former serviceman Mitchell LaFortune look past the politics in favor of a humanistic story – one that shows empathy to all parties suppressed by a senseless, bureaucracy-driven war. Waugh, the director behind workmanlike yet affectingly hard-nosed vehicles like Snitch and National Champions, is especially adept at discovering a keen voice within seemingly straightforward narratives. His perspective has often been a welcomed sight in genres that favors machismo simplicity.
It’s easy to see the potential if this concept was explored with nuance and authenticity. Unfortunately, Kandhar struggles mightly in articulating its vision. Ruminations on Afghanistan’s powder keg of clashing cultures and the human cost of war are noble yet never develop into significant insights onscreen. A big reason why is the creative team’s tactless delivery. Waugh’s over-reliance on a heavy-handed score and LaFortune’s implementation of clunky speeches sledgehammer points across without grasping their complexity. This misstep is especially glaring considering Kandahar’s ill-timed proximity to The Covenant, which shares a nearly identical premise but harbors the dimension that is sorely lacking here.
Just on an action film basis, Kandahar is competent at its best and tedious at its worst. Waugh’s steady camerawork is a sturdy-enough device for depicting waves of high-speed chases and intense gunplay, but the action scenes themselves feel oddly tired. There are a lot of been there done that numbers throughout, and the film desperately lacks the real-world grit to inject palpable tension into these frames.
I am sure Kandahar will be acceptable viewing to dads channel surfing for easily digestible content. For everyone else, the film will be considered an unremarkable excursion in generic action movie territory.
Kandahar is now playing in theaters.
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