The U.S. government might have done poorly by Afghan translators in real life, but Hollywood is attempting to make up for it with a vengeance.
Arriving shortly on the heels of Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant is this second action-thriller about an American desperately attempting to make his way through hostile, enemy-controlled territory with the help of his interpreter. Unfortunately, the Gerard Butler-starrer doesn’t benefit either from the timing or the comparison, since Kandahar lacks the visceral thrills and intense emotionality of its predecessor.
The Bottom Line
The year’s second best film about an American and his translator in Afghanistan.
To its credit, the film directed by frequent Butler collaborator Ric Roman Waugh (Angel Has Fallen, Greenland) feels more serious and authentic than Ritchie’s film. That’s no doubt due to its screenwriter, Mitchell LaFortune, a former military intelligence officer who sold this script, supposedly based on his real-life experiences, on spec. (It’s a great story, made even better by his name, which should be adorning the covers of paperback thrillers.) The script takes its time getting to the action, providing plenty of background texture regarding the region’s tense dynamics and alternating between the viewpoints of the Americans and Afghans and Iranians. Some action fans might say the film takes too long, considering its numerous talky interludes.
Butler, in the sort of role that he’s turned into a personal franchise, plays Tom Harris, a CIA operative who successfully manages such daunting assignments as taking out an Iranian nuclear facility. Well, not fully successfully, since his role in the operation is revealed in a leak by a Pentagon whistleblower and brought to public attention by a female journalist (Elenaaz Noruouzi), who is promptly arrested by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard. Her story is one of several subplots in the film that are potentially interesting but frustratingly undeveloped.
Advised by his CIA handler (Travis Fimmel, Lean on Pete) to make his way to Kandahar’s airport as quickly as possible, Harris is forced to journey 400 miles through the desert. He’s accompanied by Mo (a very effective Navid Negahban, Homeland), who has little use for either the Taliban, who are responsible for the disappearance of his sister-in-law, or the Western nations whom he sees as being equally responsible for his country’s bad fortunes.
As the pair make their way across the dangerous territory, they’re pursued by numerous Afghan forces, as well as Kahil (Ali Fazal, Death on the Nile, Victoria & Abdul), a soulful, motorcycle-driving assassin working for a bad guy who says about Harris, “We’ll sell him on the open market.” The burnt-out Kahil wants to make this his last job before getting a transfer to somewhere like London or Paris. Since he has the looks of a male model who once fronted a boy band, it seems like a reasonable desire.
The film, shot entirely in Saudi Arabia, ambitiously attempts to be more than a simple actioner with such scenes as Harris delivering a long, impassioned speech to Mo about how America has mistreated his country and the pair meeting with a warlord who turns out to be responsible for the murder of Mo’s son. But those moments don’t succeed in carrying the intended dramatic weight, and the numerous action sequences, while competently staged, prove equally underwhelming. It all feels very, very familiar, down to the world-weary Harris desperately hoping to return home alive so he can be reunited with his teenage daughter. (Butler’s previous and better movie, Plane, featured the exact same storyline. Isn’t survival for its own sake enough?)
As usual, Butler brings a convincing humanity and vulnerability to his action movie heroics, thankfully avoiding the over-the-top machismo of such predecessors in the genre as Stallone and Schwarzenegger. Let’s just hope that as he ages, he manages to segue into the sort of more interesting character-driven roles of which he’s previously proved capable and avoids becoming one of the stars of The Expendables 17.