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Gerard Butler isn’t just a meat-and-potatoes action star. He’s a cup of coffee, black and no sugar. He’s a rare T-bone—hold the sauce and the sides. Hell, he’s a cigarette and a shot of whisky (with a beer chaser) the morning after a long night of drinking. When it comes to rugged, thick-skinned, no-nonsense, back-to-basics ass-kicking, he’s your man of few words and many, many kills.
Butler is the king of modern Hollywood programmers, an A-lister who fits perfectly into frills-free genre pictures, and Kandahar (in theaters May 26) is another entry in his unabashedly gung-ho oeuvre. With a title that’s as simple—if not nearly as funny—as his prior Plane, Butler’s latest reteams him with his Angel Has Fallen and Greenland director Ric Roman Waugh for a saga that’s more than faintly reminiscent of Guy Ritchie’s recent Jake Gyllenhaal war film The Covenant. What he delivers is precisely what fans are likely looking for, albeit in a package that’s more politically muddled than is necessary.
Tom Harris (Gerard Butler) is an MI6 “lifer” who’s currently working on loan for the CIA, who have him undercover in Qom, Iran, as a telephone repairman so he can install a device in a junction box that’ll allow the agency to corrupt the country’s nuclear reactor systems. When Tom’s toil results in a covert facility going kaboom, he readies himself for a trip back home to an ex-wife who isn’t interested in reconciling and a teenage daughter (Olivia-Mai Barrett) who expects him to attend her graduation.
The lure of the fight, however, is too strong for Tom to resist, and when he’s offered a gig by his old friend Roman (Travis Fimmel) to decisively end Iran’s nuke program—and earn enough cash to put his daughter through medical school—he can’t resist. Moreover, Roman has a translator for Tom in Mo (Navid Negahban), an Afghan national who’s been living abroad in Baltimore with his family, and who’s returned to his homeland to find his wife’s missing daughter.
Things go haywire when journalist Luna (Nina Toussaint-White) receives leaked info from a whistleblower about the CIA’s covert black-ops meddling in Iran and decides to broadcast it to the world because, as she says, it’ll be “bigger than Snowden and Wikileaks.” She’s right, although in the process, she outs the identity of Tom and his colleague Oliver (Tom Rhys Harries), leading to the latter’s death and the former having to go on the run.
As luck would have it, the British have a transport plane leaving in 30 hours that Tom can hop aboard, thus evading death. The problem is, it’s located in Kandahar, hundreds of miles away from where he’s currently located—and to get there, he must contend with an assortment of foes, including Iranian forces led by Farzad (Bahador Foladi), Taliban villains commanded by Rasoul (Hakeem Jomah), and a Pakistan Inter-Services Intelligence agent named Kahil (Ali Fazal) who wears black and rides a motorcycle.
These opponents all want Tom for their own purposes and, furthermore, they don’t get along with each other, and Kandahar is most intriguing when it’s illustrating the differences between these factions. In that regard, the post-U.S.-withdrawal Taliban receives the severest condemnation, most notably when Kahil warns Rasoul that his extremist compatriots shouldn’t go back to pulling their “crazy shit all over again—chopping heads off, beating women in public, taking selfies. The world is watching, and you have to show them that you’re modernizing.” Mo’s later conversation with an Afghan woman further underscores the misogynistic horrors of life under the Taliban. Yet in most other respects, Waugh’s film (written by Mitchell LaFortune) sidesteps taking any genuine political stance, or at least muddies things enough to keep one guessing as to its real point of view.
Kandahar has Tom and Mo square off against a bevy of adversaries on their journey to their extraction-point destination, and Waugh keeps the energy reasonably high while staging brawny shootouts and showdowns. Of those, the highlight is a nocturnal face-off between Tom and a helicopter that ends with a clever grenade-tossing trick and a memorable slow-motion vision of man triumphing over machine.
The rest of the material’s aggro pleasures are of a milder variety, if muscularly helmed and executed, and there’s something pleasurable about the way in which the film refrains from turning Butler’s Tom into a superhero. While there’s never any doubt that Tom will do the right thing and come out on top in any given skirmish, Waugh and LaFortune often have him surviving by the skin of his teeth—thanks, more than once, to the efforts of supporting saviors.
With an unkempt beard and a complexion that suggests he hasn’t seen a shower in at least a fortnight, Butler’s Tom is conceived as a noble blank who’s all purpose and forward motion and minimal introspection or depth. Consequently, it’s a credit to the actor’s charisma that he ably conveys his protagonist’s stout heart and selflessness.
It’s too bad that, unlike Ritchie’s The Covenant, Kandahar never adequately develops Tom and Mo’s Westerner-translator relationship; despite a few meaningful conversations, they seem less trial by fire-bonded brothers than strangers forced to cooperate, and the fact that the script ultimately drops Mo’s personal quest speaks to the narrative’s imbalance. Nonetheless, Butler is consistently commanding, even when the film asks him to merely look robust and weathered, take lethal aim at incoming enemies, and drive furiously across the vast desert.
Pointlessly heroic sacrifices, death-defying confrontations, and one amusingly miraculous deux ex machina all play a part in the slam-bang finale, which Waugh executes with a self-seriousness that almost sells it as something other than fantasy. Most amazing of all is the means by which the film manages to address a number of hot-button geopolitical topics without saying anything meaningful at all—and then, in the end, to cast its story as proof that “you have to return home to know what you are fighting for.” Still, if Kandahar doesn’t have the courage to take a legitimate stand, it furthers the case for Butler—a He-Man who’s all gristle, no fat—as this generation’s most dependable B-movie star.