'Kandahar' review: Gerard Butler's CIA thriller is Déjà Vu again

‘Kandahar’ review: Gerard Butler’s CIA thriller is Déjà Vu again

The US government may have hurt real-life Afghan translators, but Hollywood is attempting to make up for it with a vengeance.

Coming shortly in the wake of The by Guy Ritchie Covenant is this second action thriller about an American desperately trying to make his way through hostile, enemy-controlled territory with the help of his interpreter. Unfortunately, Gerard Butler’s protagonist benefits from neither timing nor comparison, as Kandahar lacks the visceral thrills and intense emotionality of its predecessor.

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The bottom line

The second best film of the year about an American and his translator in Afghanistan.

Release date: Friday 26 May
Launch: Gerard Butler, Navid Negahban, Elnaaz Norouzi, Ali Fazal, Travis Fimmel, Bahador Foladi, Nina Toussaint-White, Vassilis Koukalani, Mark Arnold, Corey Johnson, Ravi Aujla, Ray Haratian, Tom Rhys Harries
Director: Ric Roman Waugh
Screenwriter:Mitchell LaFortune

Rated R, 2 hours

To its credit, the film directed by frequent Butler collaborator Ric Roman Waugh (Angel has fallen, Greenland) feels more serious and authentic than Ritchie’s film. This is no doubt due to his screenwriter, Mitchell LaFortune, a former military intelligence officer who sold this script, presumably based on his real-life experiences, on spec. (It’s a great story, made even better by its name, which should grace the covers of paperback thrillers.) The script takes its time to get into the action, providing a broad background story about the tense dynamics of the region and alternating between views of the Americans, the Afghans and the Iranians. Some action fans might say the movie takes mashed potato long, considering its many sound interludes.

Butler, in the kind of role he’s made into a personal franchise, plays Tom Harris, a CIA agent who successfully handles such daunting assignments as taking out an Iranian nuclear facility. Well, not entirely successful, since his role in the operation is revealed in a leak by a Pentagon informant and brought to public attention by a female journalist (Elenaaz Noruouzi), who is promptly arrested by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard. Her story is one of several subplots in the film that are potentially interesting but frustratingly undeveloped.

Advised by his CIA supervisor (Travis Fimmel, Lean on Pete) to reach Kandahar airport as fast as possible, Harris is forced to travel 400 miles across the desert. He is accompanied by Mo (a very effective Navid Negahban, Homeland), who has little interest either in the Taliban, who are responsible for the disappearance of her sister-in-law, or in Western nations whom she holds equally responsible for her country’s woes.

As the two make their way through the dangerous territory, they are pursued by numerous Afghan forces, as well as Kahil (Ali Fazal, Death on the Nile, Victoria and Abdul), an avid motorcycle-driving killer working for a bad boy who says of Harris, “We’ll sell him on the open market.” Burnt out Kahil wants to make this his last job before he gets transferred to a place like London or Paris. Since he has the looks of a male model who was once the frontman of a boy band, it seems like a reasonable desire.

The film, shot entirely in Saudi Arabia, ambitiously attempts to be more than just an action film with scenes such as Harris giving a long, passionate speech to Mo about how America has mistreated his country and the couple meeting a warlord who is revealed to be responsible for the murder of Mo’s son. But those moments fail to carry the expected dramatic weight, and the numerous action sequences, while competently staged, prove equally underwhelming. It all feels very, very familiar, right down to the world-weary Harris desperately hoping to make it home alive so he can be reunited with his teenage daughter. (Butler’s previous and best film, Airplane, featured the exact same storyline. Isn’t survival for its own sake enough?)

As usual, Butler brings a convincing humanity and vulnerability to his heroic action films, thankfully avoiding the overblown machismo of genre predecessors like Stallone and Schwarzenegger. Let’s just hope that as he gets older, he manages to follow the kind of more interesting character-driven roles that he has previously shown himself capable of and avoids becoming one of the stars of The Mercenaries 17.