KANDAHAR (2023) – Review
So, where does it say that only the big studio blockbusters can rattle the multiplex over the first big holiday weekend of the Summer cinema season? Certainly, there’s a bit of room away from the Furious fellas’ and the MCU. That’s what this flick is hoping for as Gerard Butler continues his quest to be the lower-tier action star, much like the Cannon crew did in the “go-go” 1980s (after Arnold and Sly there was Chuck and Claude). For this thiller-diller we travel to a real “hot spot” (in more ways than one) for a desert tale of undercover capers and narrow escapes. You see, everyone’s after Mr. B, so he’s got to somehow make it outta’ there via KANDAHAR. Heads up for lotsa’ sand and sweat!
It all does begin in the desert of Iran as a foreign tech crew is upgrading the area to high-speed internet. In the “hole”, exposing the wires is Tom Harris (Butler). His escorts are growing impatient as he tinkers, snips, and installs a special battery-sized device. Yes, he and his partner are “black ops” out to destroy Iran’s hidden, not-so-secret nuclear reactor. Soon the pair are back in town, preparing to leave. Meanwhile, a plucky news network reporter (Nina Toussaint-White) gets a call from her unknown “source” that US/British forces are there to wreck the new facility. Naturally, her cell phone is hacked by Iranian intelligence. Meanwhile, an agent deep, deep undercover (Travel Fimmel), picks up a translator (Navid Negahban) from the airport and sends him to Tom. But before they can connect, the faces of Tom and his cohort are splattered all over the local media. A Pakistan “freelancer”, Kahil (Ali Fazal) meets with some operatives. It seems that the Iranians want to capture Tom alive for a big public display. But not if Kahil grabs him first in order to auction him to the highest bidder (perhaps Isis). Tom and the translator meet just as his team overseas tells him that they’re “cutting him loose”. But wait, there’s a British transport touching down very briefly in a secret airfield about 400 miles away. The trouble is, the translator’s no soldier. Nonetheless, the two have to dodge multiple enemies and get on that plane or else it’s a worldwide broadcast execution.
Butler certainly has his “man of action” persona down pat (has it been 17 years since 300), and helps the story run smoothly from one stunt set piece to the next. There’s also a brief subplot about his marriage crumbling, which gives him an extra interest in surviving, so he can get to his daughter’s graduation(at several points he gazes at the greeting card he bought at the airport). It’s a plus that he’s playing a former MI-6 agent which allows his natural accent to flow forward. Negahban conveys a sense of everyman panic as Tom thrusts him into deadly danger (for which he’s ill-prepared). He too is a family guy, though he’s haunted by the demise of his son by radical forces. Some much-needed energy is injected into the standard thriller conventions by the off-kilter performance of Fazal, the motorcycle-riding mastermind who appears to embrace the new religious fanatics while enjoying the “infidel’s culture”, as he swipes through dating apps on his cell phone…while vaping. Fimmel has thoroughly embraced the faith in his adopted land, which makes him the “wild card”, as most of his allies aren’t sure if he’s 100% “with the program”.
The big chases and explosions are directed by frequent Butler collaborator Ric Roman Waugh, who certainly has his hands full here what with the different hunters tracking down Tom. There’s a nice claustrophobic feel to a chase during a dusty village’s traffic jam. Plus a battle in a pitch-black canyon adds lots of tension as we view this alien-like landscape through Tom’s night-vision goggles. But Waugh is often tripped by the underdeveloped subplots in the script. For a time we follow the double life of an Iranian officer, perhaps to paint him as a sympathetic family man, but nothing comes of it, ditto for the translator’s search for his sister. As the story chugs along, it feels like a less compelling, but louder variation of the superior desert war film from a month or so ago, GUY RITCHIE’S THE COVENANT. It’s a tough act to follow, but the ridiculous final battle with cartoon-like explosions and a charge right out of a late-show Western do this story no favors. The locations in Saudi Arabia give it an authentic look and feel, but it’s not enough to redeem this carnage-filled trek to KANDAHAR.
1.5 Out of 4
KANDAHAR is now playing in select theatres