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‘Kandahar’ Review: Somber Afghanistan-set thriller leaves rah-rah fervor in the 2000s

The movie starts with familiar action beats before tuning itself to something more complicated and thoughtful.
Credit: Open Road Films

TEXAS, USA — A sabotage mission becomes a rescue op becomes an unexpectedly somber rumination on cycles of meaningless destruction in “Kandahar,” a Gerard Butler action-thriller set in wartime Middle East that understands – or at least boldly acknowledges – the machinations that ensure it’s always wartime in the Middle East. 

The when is as important as the where, and Mitchell LaFortune’s sly screenplay sneaks in some hints, namely that “Kandahar” unfolds in a 2020s-era Middle East in which American forces have vacated Afghanistan. That detail provides crucial specificity not just to the setting but to the sociopolitical contexts in which Butler’s ex-MI6 mercenary, Tom, carries out covert operations, a small cog in the region’s ongoing shadow conflicts. “Kandahar” may neglect to explain how and why Tom chose to enlist in the CIA’s rogue agenda, but it's striking that when we see the explosive results of his movie-opening mission the dominant mood is sadness, not rah-rah fervor (despite the applause back at cozy CIA headquarters). 

It’s also key that Tom is but one player in a disorienting network of operatives and factions that have been idling by, as if adhering to violent laws of nature, before clashing together when he’s made as the perpetrator of that early disaster. That crisis sets the rest of “Kandahar” into motion, abruptly nipping a mission of enormous stakes as if LaFortune was saying, “If you expected pure thrills, think again.” 

Pay attention, for instance, to the layered setup that results in Tom being identified by his enemies; it’s the last domino of a genuinely convincing chain to fall after a British journalist looking into CIA operations is captured, effortlessly summing up how those we might identify as “the good guys” can turn on each other not out of vengeance but immediate interest. It’s the movie’s most expertly suspenseful sequence, playing out in a brief montage of headlines—this is how lives, and civilizations for that matter, are saved and destroyed.   

This isn’t to say the movie doesn’t have its action-oriented set pieces, though the baseline competence of director Ric Roman Waugh’s filmmaking (let down only by some vastly underlit nighttime sequences and on-the-nose song choices) practically works in tandem with the ideas LaFortune is working to convey. This may look like an entry in the middling Middle East war-drama subgenre that saw far more misses than hits in the 2000s, but time has provided a new lens through which to view what dogged American intervention and endless infighting has done to the region. 

“Kandahar” is not, in other words, a movie in which the line between good and evil is so cheaply discerned by who is or isn’t wearing a head covering. The tangle of political interests is so thick you can barely see the root motivations in “Kandahar,” and thorns of personal grievance are all the sharper for it. With the exception of Tom and the Baltimore-relocated Mo (Navid Negahban), a translator who returns to his native Afghanistan with his own personal mission, other faces and associations become a blur. It’s a testament to the film’s convictions that this is increasingly a feature and less of a bug as Tom and Mo race to the eponymous city for extraction back stateside. Even once they inevitably do, “Kandahar’s” final notes are far from victorious. 

"Kandahar" is rated R for violence and language. It opens in San Antonio theaters Friday. Runtime: 2 hours. 

Starring Gerard Butler, Navid Negahban, Ali Fazal, Bahador Foladi

Directed by Ric Roman Waugh; directed by Mitchell LaFortune




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