Reviewed by Jonathan Berk
The worst thing that happened to director Ric Roman Waugh’s new film Kandahar is that it comes a month after Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant. Both films feature a soldier who feels a sense of obligation to help get their translator out of Afghanistan. While that’s a bit of an oversimplification, the two films coming out so close together is clearly a result of America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and the immediate return of the Taliban’s rise to power. Even more particular is the treatment of the many enlisted translators, and the promises made to them, and how many were left to fend for themselves. The difference is that Ritchie’s film tells its story better and has much more compelling action. However, Kandahar isn’t bad, but noticeably lacking by comparison.
Kandahar focuses — which is giving the film too much credit, as it is a little convoluted — on Tom Harris (Gerard Butler), an undercover CIA agent, who finds himself the target of pretty much everybody from the Iranian government to the Taliban, ISIS, and ISI after his cover is blown. Tom had recently been given a new mission and a new translator, played by Navid Negahban, who had previously escaped Afghanistan and returned with a mission of his own. However, both must give up their current goals in order to try to flee to an extraction point in Kandahar…or die trying.
There are several moments in the film that feel extremely clunky. David Mamet mentions in his book On Directing Film that Hollywood has a fixation on backstory. We are told early on that Tom is about to leave to see his daughter graduate. Has he been a good dad or a good husband? Nope. Will he do the right thing and leave right away to make sure he makes it on time? Or will he take another mission that’ll inevitably put a ticking clock in the story? This blatant attempt to flesh out the character feels cliché and unnecessary. A soldier doing his job is now in jeopardy, which is enough of a situation to make the audience want him to get out safely. The way this information is delivered slows the momentum of the story down and doesn’t pay off or add much to the film.
Then there are all the various story lines and characters. There is the journalist investigating something in Iran that leads to Tom’s cover being blown. Each member of the various organizations invested in catching Tom for one reason or another, Tom’s handler in Afghanistan and the suits back home, plus the second main character of the translator, all attempt to grapple for time on screen and stakes. The impact is uneven and complicated for the audience to understand why we spend so much time with all these various players who do nothing more than complicate things for the sake of complication.
It may sound like Kandahar isn’t a good movie, but that wouldn’t be accurate. There are some decent action set pieces — including a car chase with night vision goggles — that will definitely get invested audiences gripping their armrests. The two lead performances are solid, and you can’t help but worry for their safety. This movie finds its rhythm when it’s just Butler and Negahban trying to escape from terrifying situations. Even some of their clunky exposition dumps are tolerable, because the two feel committed. These moments are only weaker because The Covenant’s similar moments feel more impactful.
Kandahar is in theaters on May 26.