A Gerard Butler action movie? From the director of the risible Angel Has Fallen? With a single word for a title (see also: Greenland, Geostorm, Plane)? Quietly and unceremoniously released on a streaming service? It’s fair to say that nobody was expecting Oscars for Kandahar. But while it certainly won’t be troubling Academy voters’ longlists, that initial weight of expectations is not entirely fair to it.
For while this film does, for the most part, fit neatly into Gerry B’s B-movie era, it is also a surprisingly mature and thoughtful entry on his prolific CV, a film that’s at least trying to be meaty rather than meat-headed. This is not a straight-up action movie. Working from a spec script by former military intelligence officer Mitchell LaFortune, who brings a modest level of verisimilitude that these sorts of films often lack, it has aspirations to be a high-minded, twisty geopolitical thriller, sober in tone and serious in themes.
Mostly mature, considered stuff, from a director-star combo who seem keen to defy expectations.
Here, Butler plays Tom Harris (joining the hallowed ranks of Mike Banning, Bob Viddick, and ‘Big Nick’ O’Brien in blokey Butler character names). Harris is a freelance spook; when we meet him, he’s posing as an electricity contractor, secretly undercover for the CIA, working to destroy a nuclear research facility in Iran. When a journalist (Nina Toussaint-White) is captured by Iran’s notorious security services, Harris’ true identity is leaked to the international press, and he’s forced to make a hasty exit, aided by translator and handler Mo (Navid Negahban). The pair must make the treacherous journey to Kandahar, where a British cargo plane awaits, pursued by Pakistani security services, Iranian military, Taliban warlords, and more.
If this story — of a Westerner attempting to escape Afghanistan with a local — sounds a lot like Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant, well, yes, there are some similarities. But that’s unfortunate timing, because Kandahar has a lot more on its mind than, say, Plane. It’s not short on well-directed action — a cat-and-mouse night chase in the desert between a truck and a helicopter is particularly tense — but in-between Butler’s usual bread-and-butter, there’s effort to consider the costly consequences of America’s recent interventions in the region. In particular, the film acknowledges the human fallout from the 2021 fall of Kabul to the Taliban, and the devastation left in a country seemingly doomed to endless tragedy. In a surprisingly moving scene, Butler’s character expresses guilt and regret over the memory of an Afghan translator who stayed with him through six tours — only to be hanged by ISIL.
By the third act, it follows a bit more of a familiar escape-from-a-warzone playbook, with a conclusion that won’t leave anyone surprised. The geopolitical machinations, meanwhile, are fairly surface-level; Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal need not be too worried by any pretenders to their throne. But this is mostly mature, considered stuff, from a director-star combo who seem keen to defy expectations and move above their usual cheap-and-cheerful prospects.