KANDAHAR Review: Gerard Butler Returns in Semi-Inspired Geopolitical Action-Thriller

Gerard Butler and director Ric Roman Waugh reunite.

Lead Critic; San Francisco, California
KANDAHAR Review: Gerard Butler Returns in Semi-Inspired Geopolitical Action-Thriller

After more than two decades, the United States and its allies officially ended their occupation of Afghanistan, the first, but not the last country, the U.S. of A. invaded in the name of the “War on Terror” (Iraq was the second two years later, leading to another costly, prolonged occupation).

Like the previous, decade-long war in Vietnam, Afghanistan’s U.S.-supported government, along with its supposedly well-equipped, well-trained military, almost immediately collapsed, leaving Afghans non-allied with the Taliban or any one of countless militias vulnerable to coercion, violence, or even death.

For historians, the retreat from Afghanistan and subsequent aftermath represented a knowable outcome, but outside of academic institutions and privately funded think tanks, the real-world consequences for Afghans have been nothing short of dire. The Taliban have instituted a reactionary form of Islam (sharia law) on the population, rolled back meaningful progress for women, and targeted sympathizers and suspected sympathizers of the Western occupation, with the harshest penalties saved for Afghan translators and their families.

There’s a film — maybe even a miniseries — in the predictably troubled post-occupation history of Afghanistan and Afghan translators specifically. Unfortunately, however, Kandahar, the third collaboration between star-producer Gerard Butler and director Ric Roman Waugh (Greenland, Angel Has Fallen, Snitch), isn’t that film.

While it feints in that general direction, attempting to simplify, not to mention dramatize, the overlapping, contradictory conflicts between border countries (Iran, Pakistan) and internal fracture (the Taliban vs. everyone else), the demands of the commercial market dictate a superficial gloss at best, a confusing, muddled mess at worst whenever Kandahar ventures into geopolitics for more than a few minutes at a time.

Kandahar centers on a staple Butler character, Tom Harris in this incarnation, a world-weary CIA operative — on loan from MI6, no less, to cover for his Scottish accent — whose super combat skills, quick thinking, and indomitable, can-do attitude make him a perfect fit for perpetual war and an imperfect one everywhere else, including, of course, a faltering marriage about to end in divorce and a high-school daughter, Ida (Olivia-Mai Barrett), graduating in a few days.

If that artificial deadline (high-school graduation) doesn’t exactly qualify as high-stakes scenario-wise, Harris’s involvement in a covert mission in Iran to delay their burgeoning nuclear program should. Harris’s mission ends in a spectacular explosion, nightly news coverage, and a Pentagon whistleblower leak to a chatty British reporter, Luna Cujai (Nina Toussaint-White).

That, in turn, reveals Harris’s real identity just as he’s back in-country on a second mission, leading to an unlikely, film-long partnership between Harris and the Afghan-born translator, Mohammed “Mo” Doud (Navid Negahban), who joins him in Afghanistan. Mohammed has reasons of his own for returning to Afghanistan, but they take second position once Harris finds himself the subject of a manhunt involving the Taliban, a coldly efficient Pakistani agent, Kahil (Ali Fazal), and an anguished Iranian colonel, Farzad Asadi (Bahador Foladi).

Everyone has their reasons for capturing Harris, though the Iranians have the strongest claim (i.e., the countless, unseen deaths at the super-secret nuclear facility, national pride/propaganda) while Kahil, a deeply cynical operative eager to leave the Middle East for debauched dens of Western iniquity, has the least. Kahil, though, also functions as the in-film version of a Terminator-like character, relentless in his pursuits, near invulnerable to projectiles, large and small, and fast-moving vehicles.

Kandahar takes the better part of an hour to move from the first, tense scene of Harris sabotaging the nuclear facility to the second, an escalating car chase through the streets of Herat before a short sojourn in the dusty mountains separating Herat and the extraction site, an abandoned U.S. air base, outside Kandahar. An extended, tightly choreographed nighttime sequence pitting Harris in night goggles vs. a helicopter functions as the film’s action highlight before another action break. What follows doesn’t necessarily impress, though like everything else in Kandahar, it’s defined by Waugh’s general competency behind the camera and in the editing room.

Butler may not be exactly stretching or challenging himself as an actor here. That’s not necessarily a knock on Butler, though.

By this point in his career, Butler keenly understands his strengths and weaknesses as an actor and makes sure to maximize the former and minimizing the latter, delivering another quietly intense, physically energetic performance, short on dialogue and long on meaningful, intense stares. For some action fans, that might just be enough to recommend Kandahar to them.

Kandahar opens today (Friday, May 26) exclusively in movie theaters, via Open Road Films.


  • Ric Roman Waugh
  • Mitchell LaFortune
  • Gerard Butler
  • Navid Negahban
  • Ali Fazal
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Gerard ButlerKandaharMitchel LaFortuneNavid NegahbanRic Roman WaughTravis FimmelMitchell LaFortuneAli FazalActionThriller

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