In a famous 1960 piece for Cahiers du Cinema, titled “In Defense of Violence,” Michel Mourlet bluntly states: “Charlton Heston is an axiom. He constitutes a tragedy in himself, his presence in any film being enough to instill beauty. The pent-up violence expressed by the sombre phosphorescence of his eyes… the stupendous strength of his torso — this is what he has been given, and what not even the worst of directors can debase.” Gerard Butler might be our modern Heston, all “stupendous strength,” only gone to seed. Critic Soraya Roberts praises Butler’s “faithful portrayal of a rumpled-but-honorable masculinity” in a recent essay for The New York Times Magazine. Ignatiy Vishnevetsky once remarked in print that Butler looked like he “had eaten Rusell Crowe,” a far cry from the buff, perfectly-sculpted action heroes of the ‘80s and ‘90s. Butler is the beefy, taciturn face of the modern mid-budget action movie, a genre largely displaced by superhero spectacle on the one hand and lo-fi, but wildly inventive, DTV features on the other. He’s the last gasp of a dying breed, in other words, and how much one enjoys the new action-thriller Kandahar probably depends on how much one enjoys Butler himself.
Essentially playing a variation on his Has Fallen character, Mike Bannon (although every Butler performance could be called a variation), here Butler is a CIA asset named Tom Harris. Introduced in the middle of a covert mission, Harris and his partner are infiltrating a secret Iranian nuclear base under the guise of Internet technicians upgrading some infrastructure. After the successful completion of the job, Harris kicks back with a cold beer while some military brass back in the States hack into the base’s reactor and detonate it. Satisfied with his work, Harris plans to return home to his soon-to-be-ex-wife and teenage daughter, who’s about to graduate high school. But Harris’ handler, played by Travis Fimmel, coerces him into one more job. Harris is to cross over into Afghanistan and meet Mohammad (Navid Negahban), a translator who is from the area but has been living in the US for several years. Mohammad, or Mo, has his own reasons for returning to his war-ravaged homeland, and is using this mission with Harris for his own purposes.
Meanwhile, a British journalist receives a dossier of leaked information incriminating the United States in the attack on Iran. This immediately leads to Farzad (Bahador Foladi), an Iranian Revolutionary Guard officer, kidnapping the journalist, interrogating her, and learning Harris’ identity. With his cover now blown, Harris’ new mission is aborted, and he and Mo are ordered to seek extraction at an old, abandoned US military base. The only catch is that it’s 400 miles away, and Harris and Mo will have to traverse a huge expanse of dangerous country to get there. Further complicating matters is a determined Pakistani agent named Kahil (Ali Fazal), who has been tasked by his commanding officers with capturing Harris. Kahil is in bed with a local Taliban warlord who he calls in for reinforcements, while all parties involved are on the lookout for various Isis sects still operating in the area.
This is an awful lot of setup to get through, but director Ric Roman Waugh — now on his third collaboration with Butler — handles the various threads with relative ease. It takes about 45 minutes to establish all of these moving pieces, but eventually Kandahar turns into a pretty straightforward chase film. Iranian, Pakistani, Taliban, and Isis forces all have their own motives for capturing Harris, and each character is given some real personality. Kabul in particular makes an impression as a man with Westernized tastes who wants to leave the region and live somewhere in Europe — he’s an opportunist, not a true believer. Indeed, the filmmakers seem determined to portray the Middle East with at least the rare modicum of nuance, allowing for differences in the region to be carefully delineated and respecting various characters’ need to pray at specific times. For his part, Harris is well aware of the destruction that the US and its allies have wrought on the region, as well as the damage inflicted by our abrupt, disorganized departure in 2021. Given everything going on, Waugh has to toe a tricky line here, constantly vacillating between a reasonably serious political thriller and a straightforward action movie. And in an odd bit of happenstance, Harris and Mo’s relationship mirrors the plot of the recent Guy Ritchie film, The Covenant, but there’s also quite a bit of Ridley Scott’s underrated Body of Lies in Kandahar‘s DNA.
Still, the film really only comes alive during its infrequent but well-constructed shootouts and chases. A showdown on a crowded street is expertly staged by Waugh and mononymous cinematographer MacGregor. And the real showstopper is a nighttime sequence that finds Harris and Mo on the run from a helicopter. Waugh and MacGregor alternate between two different types of night-vision goggles — one pair, worn by Harris, renders in blown-out whites and dark grays; the other, from the vantage point of the helicopter, features a more familiar fuzzy, digital green. The difference in hues allows Waugh to cut freely while still maintaining a precise geography, each character’s POV instantly recognizable even in the dead of night; it’s thrilling stuff, perfectly realized and choreographed. That the film ultimately ends up exactly where you think it will is perhaps a knock against it, as are some fuzzy ideas about international politics (it’s unclear if the filmmakers realize that the act of sabotage that opens the film is a very serious war crime). Which is to say, however sensitive the film is to its Muslim characters, this is still an American action movie that seeks to find thrills in our military interventions. How much you ultimately mind any of this probably depends on how much you like seeing Butler kick some ass. You know who you are.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 21.