War interpreters might be turning into the in-thing for action cinema. A trend that’s only as reliable as the material. For those who had witnessed and were easily elated by the pragmatic sincerity of Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant, another film transpiring in the thick of Afghan conflict would easily lose itself in the prior’s residual aura. Ric Roman Waugh’s Kandahar may be all but privy to this quirk and would falter from it were it not for a fulfilling message of seeking and preserving the reason one chooses to fight. It’s just too bad that idea is thrown into the ring, sandwiched between an expansive action feature, and a mild espionage thriller.
The figure tying all three together is Tom Harris (Gerard Butler), Mi6 combat vet turned CIA black ops specialist. The type of guy who agrees to contract gigs around Afghanistan, helping to signal and relay sensitive data back to the states. Or in the case of when we first see him, and partner Oliver (Tom Rhys Harries), planting a bomb inside wiring near a power station. He smiles, nods, plays chameleon, but only if he can make it home in a timely manner. Sure, his family life is strained, the work throwing his life balance awry, and his marriage in the wringer. But he strives to maintain a promise, return home in time for his daughter’s graduation. That is suddenly no longer a guarantee, as old friend Roman (Travis Fimmel) courts him for a 3-day assignment, take out another hub before the opposition can effectively retaliate for the first attack.
Somehow, that’s not all. Tied up elsewhere in this mess we find underground journalist Luna Cujai (Nina Toussaint-White), kidnapped for blowing the whistle on both Tom’s cover and the CIA’s plans. Roguish agent Kahil (Ali Fazal) slides in, attempting to clean up the earlier mess and capture Tom while still exposed, trying far too hard to mimic John Wick and the Continental. And then there’s Mo (Navid Negahban), long emigrated from Afghanistan, agreeing to help Tom as his translator while attempting to search for her sister, a teacher taken hostage by the Taliban.
The way all these characters intersect in and out of importance is almost impossible to keep track of. The script, penned by Mitchell LaFortune, looks to aim more on matters of the heart – Tom’s desire to slow down and reemphasize family and Mo’s quest to find it again. Waugh’s directorial vision sees an awkwardly different direction, leaning more toward the action and Butler’s increasing machismo. In their third collaboration after Angel Has Fallen and Greenland, Waugh pulls more grizzled weariness out of Butler like an overly familiar emotional quirk. Unlike the latter sci-fi feat, Waugh doesn’t have as firm a grip on the wheel as one would like. An otherwise determined directorial mind can’t settle on the best thematic track, instead leapfrogging between many. In turn, lessening Luna’s despair, stifling Mo’s fury, and flattening Tom’s bravado to a single note.
Had the script been given a second pass, with director and scribe seeing more eye to eye, I imagine there’d have been a greater emphasis on balance. Whatever Kandahar is showing off, it’s nowhere near its strengths. Make Tom more a ploy in the espionage threat, this all would’ve made more sense. Not that any alteration would alter Butler’s resolve. He trots along fine in combat boots and varying vehicles keeping his matinee idol muscles well tensed. The longer he’s ensconced in enemy territory, however, the further he’s drifting from any lingering manner of sagacity on the page. And eventually, it all turns tiresome, Waugh running out of gas to juggle everything on his plate.
This was one of those occasions where I had to facilitate a second viewing for anything to truly make sense. With how drawn-out Kandahar winds up, 20 minutes too long, its message remains clear, and the mild action proceedings still faintly engaging. The final escape sequences, which Waugh stages with a pulse-pounding energy sorely lacking in much of the first hour, do keep the eyes widened. A fair contrast, when many of the other visual high points couldn’t be taken as seriously, often coming off with the same gloss as a first-person POV game. I could just as much say the same to Negahban’s performance, often outpacing Butler in style and ferocity, helping to build up the fervor in LaFortune’s written word right when it’s most essential. Little of it to go around, overall. But plenty to drive the film’s prevalent message home – not to lose sight of why going home can be the greatest reward after a long time away in conflict.
To get lost in the desert is to echo a loss of foresight on Waugh’s part, unsure how to balance three different stock plots in the same recipe and have them maintain a sharp realism. Kandahar would be at its best if its pastiche of true experience had been more rooted. Instead, Waugh shapes it like an extended fever dream. Something drafted from the subconscious without a second glimpse to smooth out its incoherencies, grants a glimpse of human perspective on the battlefield as it could’ve been. It’s a fine enough time for Butler and Negahban, standing out well as unlikely brothers in arms. Toussaint-White deserved more time to impress, with Fazal almost serving as a substantial villain, but arriving far too late to re-skew the thematic boundary. Same for any sort of needed action movie oomph to chart its course on a level path. That much eventually happens, but not before a lot of needless meandering. Things do happen in this wild war adventure, one where the line between good and evil is mostly concise. I wouldn’t have the patience to sit through it a third time, though, if that meant that shift would be far clearer. (C-; 2.5/5)
Kandahar opens in theaters May 26, showtimes start at 5PM May 25; rated R for violence and language; 120 minutes.