By Josh Reilly B. & George Bate
When modern action heroes are discussed, the likes of Keanu Reeves and Tom Cruise are often the first names to come to mind, but there’s another actor whose contribution to the genre and cinema broadly remains underappreciated. Gerard Butler has captivated audiences and gathered quite the following after his portrayal of King Leonidas in Zack Synder’s 300. Since then, Butler has played Mike Benning in the action-packed Had Fallen trilogy, produced and starred in the underrated Den of Thieves, and portrayed a more understated role in the contemplative The Vanishing, amongst a variety of other solid features (see Copshop, Plane, Last Seen Alive). Now, the overlooked action hero that is Gerard Butler returns to the big screen for a tense and complex political thriller that, despite its issues, further cements Butler as a pleasantly consistent presence in the action genre.
Kandahar sees Butler re-team with Ric Roman Waugh, who helmed Angel Has Fallen and Greenland. The latest Waugh/Butler team-up sees Butler play CIA operative Tom Harris, an experienced and intelligent spy who operates in the Middle East. After being recruited by his handler (played by Vikings’ Travis Fimmel) for a daring mission, Harris’ cover is blown and he finds himself, alongside his Afghan translator Mo (played by Homeland’s Navid Negahban), deep in enemy territory in Afghanistan. The two must contend with an array of government officials, terrorists, and elite special forces as they attempt a treacherous journey to an extraction point in Kandahar.
Kandahar initially presents itself as and is aspiring to be a sprawling political thriller, populated by a massive array of characters exchanging intelligent dialogue about political turmoil in the Middle East, Black Ops missions, and other topics ripe for a movie in the vein of Paul Greengrass’ Green Zone. This ambitious attempt, however, for director Waugh and star Butler to elevate Kandahar to be a more cerebral action thriller unfortunately falls flat. The beginning 30 minutes of the two hour film overwhelm with far too many characters and seemingly disparate plot threads to keep track of. Many characters introduced in this beginning period, who seemingly would play sizable roles in the events moving forward, are left behind as the film settles into its premise, leans into its action movie sensibilities, and finally kicks into gear.
In this sense, Kandahar makes for a convoluted political thriller, but a satisfying action adventure film. After the messy beginning period, the film pivots its focus primarily to Gerard Butler’s Tom Harris and Navid Negahban’s Mo with only the occasional distraction of confusing and underexplained political thriller elements thrown in the mix. And, from here on out, Kandahar is an exhilarating and immersive experience. Harris and Mo are being tracked down by a series of villainous characters, whether it be members of the Taliban, determined government agents, or a mercenary. With this array of competing villains hot on their heels, the film maintains an incredible level of intensity throughout the remainder of its runtime. There is little rest for Harris, Mo, and, in turn, the audience as escape becomes increasingly difficult. The stakes are high here, and the action sequences are gritty and well choreographed in a way Paul Greengrass would be proud of.
All of the well-crafted action and palpable intensity of the film would not be possible without Gerard Butler as the lead. Butler doesn’t do anything particularly unique with his performance, but brings a welcoming steadiness and likability to his character. He is instantly believable as an intelligent, overworked CIA operative, whose seriousness complements the film’s gritty tone and whose occasional humor lends the film much needed levity.
By Butler’s side is the Afghan translator Mo, played by Navid Negahban. The Homeland actor is terrific as a grieving father, who gets unintentionally wrapped up in Harris’ deadly business. The chemistry between Butler and Negahban is core to the film’s heart, which surprisingly shines through in the final act as the men try to reach the extraction point. It’s rare for an action film like this to feature such emotionality, but, through compelling lead performances from Butler and Negahban, there is unexpected warmth in Kandahar.
Kandahar proves yet again that Gerard Butler is one of the most reliable and underappreciated movie stars working today. Although its political thriller inclinations are convoluted and fall flat, the latest Ric Roman Waugh-Gerard Butler collaboration captures a level of intensity and features gritty, grounded action that the likes of Michael Mann and Paul Greengrass would be proud of.
Kandahar is in theaters nationwide Friday May 26. Check out a trailer for the film below: