This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labour of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie/series/feature being covered here wouldn't exist.
"Kandahar is a commendable action picture rather than an exceptional one. With the film's final showdown unfolds like a Middle Eastern Western, surprisingly hitting the mark."
BY M.N.MILLER AUGUST 14, 2023
Is Gerard Butler the new Bruce Willis? After watching his latest film, Kandahar, I'm starting to think so. You know, just minus the box office brilliance. There hasn't been an action icon who has been less of a cookie-cutter, rugged anti-pretty boy and just plain gruff since the legendary star of Die Hard. The Scottish actor looks like a handsome, weathered baseball mitt — like an American male pulled out of a Pennsylvania coal mine, one who chews coffee grounds and uses a glass of whiskey as a mouth freshener. He’s distinct, and there’s no other Hollywood star quite like him.
Butler is the '90s-era Nicolas Cage of action pictures; the man takes risks, unlike any other action hero of his day. His new film, Kandahar, fits right into the Gerard Butler genre of action distraction films that pit him against foreign forces, where only one man can be called upon to do the job. He plays Tom Harris, an MI6 agent on loan to the CIA, assigned with a mission to install malware in an Iranian nuclear research plant. This was deemed necessary to prevent the theocratic republic from producing additional weapons of mass destruction. With his mission finally done, he heads home to the United Kingdom for his daughter's graduation.
However, that's when his CIA handler, Roman (Vikings’ star Travis Fimmel), offers him a contract during a layover in Dubai. If he accepts, Roman will provide him with enough money to cover his daughter's potential medical school expenses. The mission? Sneak across the Afghanistan border, littered with dangers, and utilize a secret CIA airstrip so that Tom can thwart the production of the country's first nuclear power plant. Once there, he will be picked up by an Afghan-American translator named Mohammad "Mo" Doud (Navid Negahban, Legion), who will guide him through the region's underbelly. However, the mission gets aborted when a journalist (Nina Toussaint-White, Eastenders) is kidnapped and coerced into revealing a whistleblower's information about the CIA's regional sabotage of nuclear programs. Now, Tom and Mo are left to return to safety alone.
Working with a first-time writer, Mitchell LaFortune, Butler is again directed by Ric Roman Waugh (Snitch). Both have enjoyed significant success together on films such as Angel Has Fallen and Greenland, and perhaps there's a reason why their movies give film critics like me a nostalgic feeling reminiscent of the late 80s and 90s action films. This might be attributed to the fact that Waugh used to work on stunts for summer blockbusters (and occasional failures) like Last Action Hero, Hard Target, The Crow, and Lethal Weapon 2. Heck, the man even has an uncredited stunt sequence in Tango & Cash and an acting credit in Married with Children — what's not to love? His films focus on simpler plots, heroic figures, high-octane action sequences, and underlying cultural themes, and they feel niche in an era dominated by realistic special effects, captivating characters, and a unique visual style in summer blockbusters.
You have all of that in Kandahar, which places a premium on exploring the tug of modern Islam against its centuries-old traditional following. This exploration is carried out by Mo and Kahil Nasir (Ali Fazal, Death on the Nile), an ISI agent with an unconventional interpretation of the Quran. This is where Kandahar truly shines, as Fazal's role as Kahil involves capturing and delivering Tom back to his superiors unharmed. His reward is an all-expenses-paid journey into Western culture without obligation to return. Together with Mo's desire to return to his homeland and the unique perspectives of Romans on the region, the audience is presented with three viewpoints that revolve around Butler's fish-out-of-water experience, which his character has been hired to manipulate. All three supporting characters possess depth and flaws and contribute to making the film, at the very least, intriguing.
That said, Kandahar does have its evident shortcomings. Certain action scenes defy logic, such as a battered truck outlasting a military-grade weaponized helicopter. However, that’s to be expected. I would have appreciated a more focused script that delved further into Fazal's Kahil. I believe that dynamic would have been much more satisfying if they had fleshed out that character since Kahil and Tom are designed to run into each other at the end. I would even prefer added screentime for this since it would have given Kandahar a more epic feel. This could have allowed all secondary storylines and themes to have a more profound impact rather than feeling compressed. Even the subplot involving the reporter's interrogation by Tehran's Bahador Foladi could have carried significant dramatic weight if afforded sufficient time.
That means Kandahar is a commendable action picture rather than an exceptional one. Nevertheless, the film's final showdown unfolds like a Middle Eastern Western, surprisingly hitting the mark. Waugh's film is a throwback to old-fashioned filmmaking that works, though it falls slightly short of its ambitions. This results in a slightly elevated form of escapism that has been missing in contemporary action cinema themes, and that's a good thing.