When a director and actor truly click as well as Gerard Butler and filmmaker Ric Roman Waugh, expectations are exceeded when you least expect it. Such is the case for Kandahar, a knotty, surprisingly rich war thriller that, on the surface, looks like an action-heavy version of Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant. Certainly that’s what I thought it would be. But I should’ve known that Butler and Waugh would provide something more, given their previous work on Angel Has Fallen, the deepest and best movie in that franchise, and the disaster film Greenland which showed surprising levels of human emotion. Perhaps it’s time to stop underestimating these two and to start expecting greatness.
Butler leads a sizable ensemble as Tom Harris, an undercover CIA operative who we are introduced to as he, with considerable ease, obliterates a secret Iranian nuclear facility. This is the kind of act that, in a different kind of Butler movie, would lead to endless shootouts, chases over desert sands, and glib one-liners. But Kandahar is not that movie. Instead, Tom’s cover is blown by a devastating leak on the scale of Edward Snowden, and immediately he is on a race to get out of hostile territory in Afghanistan, accompanied by his translator Mohammad (Navid Negahban).
Okay, to be fair, this does become a rather action-heavy movie that Butler fits quite neatly into. However, Kandahar is never as simple as one would expect from a major studio film. Waugh and screenwriter Mitchell LaFortune, the latter basing it on his own experiences in Afghanistan as part of the Defense Intelligence Agency, present a balanced account of American and Middle Eastern interests. The opening hour of the film is heavy in exposition, but it’s necessary to sort out the snake pit of factions who are warring one day and frenemies the next. You’ve got Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, Israel, the Taliban, ISIS, and various warlords all converging and it can get cryptic and hard to follow. But that’s also the point; for someone like Tom, who has already seen his family life crumble because of his clandestine work, it all just becomes part of the job. And the job now is to get out of Afghanistan alive.
Tom is also the easiest character to keep track of. His goals are singular, which can’t be said about anyone else in the film. He wants to get home to his family in time to attend an event for his daughter, yet still accepts a dangerous three-day mission to destroy another Iranian nuclear facility, which is when the leak screws things up. Mohammed has greater designs than just his own safety; in fact that seems to be the least of his concerns. His face is etched with the pain of working for the Americans when their occupation has already cost him dearly, and now he fights to find a missing loved one. Revolutionary Guard agent Farzad (Bahador Foladi) is a family man, and wants to capture Tom as quickly as possible just to get back to a sense of normalcy. Meanwhile, hip ISI hitman Kahil (Ali Fazal) balks at the return of the old ways because it makes modern life less cool. He loves his dating apps, not so much having to swipe left on women forced to wear burqas. The characters are colorful, alive, and considerably more interesting than the genre typically provides.
By adding depth to these complicated characters, the action has more punch. Waugh is a terrific filmmaker when it comes to crafting an intense, visceral scene, but he doesn’t use a ton of bells and whistles. The opening chase kicks off simply, built on the stress of the moment causing Tom to make a hasty choice. Later, an incredible shootout with a helicopter under the cover of night makes impeccable use of sound to bolster the flashes of light. When people die, and it has an impact; these aren’t nameless, faceless strangers whose lives have no meaning.
While Kandahar can be a bit sluggish at times, it’s all in service of a film that goes to great lengths to be more substantial than the typical action movie or political thriller. The first major U.S. film to shoot in Saudi Arabia in decades, Ii’s another recent career highlight for Butler, who has found in Waugh a director that can best capture his rugged charm and vulnerability, maximizing his potential as a crowd-pleasing star. Let’s hope this partnership continues for the long haul.
Kandahar opens in theaters on May 26th.