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KANDAHAR (2023) review

May 27, 2023


written by: Mitchell LaFortune
produced by: Basil Iwanyk, Erica Lee, Brandon Boyea, Gerard Butler, Alan Siegel, Christian Mercuri, Scott LaStaiti & Ali Jaafar
directed by: Ric Roman Waugh
rated: R (for violence and language)
runtime: 120 min.
U.S. release date: May 26, 2023


Gerard Butler and Ric Roman Waugh have a good thing going. They make action flicks that are better than anyone expects them to be. “Angel Has Fallen” was the first one the Scottish actor and American director made together, a surprisingly solid sequel that became a hit and then came another one, the end-of-the-world disaster thriller, “Greenland” in 2020. Now the pair reunite for a third collaboration with “Kandahar”, a modern-day action thriller with spy elements that is essentially a character study and an enthralling one at that. It’s a movie that subverts expectations by provided more than just nonstop action, focusing on the motivations and personalities of the characters we’re introduced to in a more geopolitical storyline.

Former MI6 agent, Tom Harris (Gerard Butler) works as a C.I.A. operative who’s been tasked with a mission in Iran to take out an underground nuclear facility, in an effort to prevent certain destruction. While his cover as a telecommunications repairman for a contractor is intact, his personal life is in jeopardy with his wife (Rebecca Calder, unseen but heard) reminding him over the phone that showing up to his daughter’s high school graduation in London is non-negotiable, but also that he needs to sign the divorce papers she sent him. The characterization setup sounds cliché, but Tom knows how he got here and it’s obvious this split is amicable. It helps that Butler establishes an earnestness, playing a world-weary combat veteran who knows nothing else and also knows that the life he’s chosen has prevented any chance at closeness.



With his job completed, Tom hopes to reunite with his daughter after checking in and out with his C.I.A. handler, Roman (Travis Fimmel), located in Dubai. Unfortunately, he’s told there’s another job that requires Tom’s expertise and it’s one that comes with quite a hefty payload, one that could help his daughter through medical school. The three-day assignment will require him to cross into Afghanistan and deal with a specific concern in a barren yet hostile Taliban-occupied countryside. Tom is given a translator named Mo (Navid Negahban) to assist, a quiet and haunted man who’s returned to his homeland to track down his wife’s missing sister.

The whole thing would’ve gone smoothly if not for an intelligence leak from the Pentagon that exposes Tom as one of the ones responsible for destroying the nuclear facility. That information was given to local journalist, Luna (Nina Toussaint-White), who is then kidnapped by Iranian intelligence who are out to bring to justice anyone responsible for the recent destruction. The one behind her kidnapping and the official in charge of the investigation is Farzad Asadi (Bahador Foladi), a man who would prefer to keep this a low-profile exercise, but knows there are too many eyes on these events. Some of those eyes come from a control room in the Pentagon, where Tom’s activities are followed and commented on by operatives Chris Hoyt (Corey Johnson) and Mark Lowe (Mark Arnold) via drone work and satellite footage.



Roman offers Tom a way out now that his cover is blown, but it would require him crossing dangerous terrain with Mo in 30 hours to catch an MI6 plane from the titular city, while Pakistani and Iranian secret agents are pursuing them. This point A to point B goal is where “Kandahar” kicks it up a notch, while still finding a greater interest in who these characters are.

The screenplay from Mitchell LaFortune tries to balance many moving parts and while that endeavor is often more confusing than it is successful, his focus on character interaction over action sequences is often makes up for it. At times, it’s a challenge to figure out who some of the supporting characters in “Kandahar”, as well as who they are working for and what their endgame is. For example, Ali Kazal plays a hotshot Pakistani spy prone to racing across the dessert on a black motorcycle in an effort to contain the situation (aka prevent Tom and Mo from catching their plane), but he brings quite a fascinating presence with his 007 suaveness that he deserves to be more fleshed out or his own movie. So, maybe there’s one too many characters here and some of the dialogue feels recycled, but at least LaFortune and Waugh are making an effort to see characters in this region of the world as real people and not just jingoistic stereotypes we often see on the screen.



At the heart of “Kandahar” is the friendship that develops between Tom and Mo, two men who come to an understanding and admiration for each other in dire situations. Butler and Negahban work great off each other, with both of them enlightened by their partnership as they come to rely on each in perilous situations. Negahban stands out here, deftly portraying a man with a complicated past involving grief and trauma. Butler has created a satisfying niche for himself in these genre features, which often times are thankfully more than just superfluous action flicks. Like he did in his last two outings with Waugh, he serves as a co-producer on “Kandahar”, which shows that they definitely have a committed working relationship with each other. They’ll team up again for a sequel to “Greenland” which will hopefully be as good as the last one.

As the countdown to extraction intensifies, “Kandahar” increases close calls and well-executed set pieces. Most memorable of them is a cool night-vision battle that pits Tom against a pursuing helicopter. The camerawork from cinematographer MacGregor (the professional name for Madrid-born Miguel de Olaso, who worked on last year’s aerial thriller “The Fall”) is stellar throughout, but here he provides an immersive quality that accentuates the urgency of the situation. Notably, this is only the second American film to be shot in Saudi Arabia.

With “Kandahar”, Waugh delivers a potent action thriller that has more on its mind than just cool stunts. While at times it’s kind of hard to keep track of everyone and it may not be as hard-charging as some would expect, this is nevertheless a satisfying viewing experience.





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