Gerard Butler action vehicle may prove too dry and too politically ambiguous to satisfy the actor's fans.
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For both good and ill the new Gerard Butler action vehicle “Kandahar” (in theaters beginning Friday, May 26) isn’t the movie that was sold to us. The picture’s first third is much more akin to the proficiency porn produced by Michael Mann or Stephen Gaghan’s 2005 political thriller “Syriana” than it is to say something like “Olympus Has Fallen.”
Butler stars as Tom Harris, an MI6 agent on loan to the CIA working an array of missions across the Middle East. His latest assignment was the successful shutdown of an Iranian nuclear reactor. Harris’ handler Roman Chalmers (“Vikings” veteran Travis Fimmel) – no relation to Super Nintendo Chalmers – is pleased enough with his work that he tasks him with blowing up an airstrip and teams him with an interpreter named Mohammad Doud (Navid Negahban).
Unfortunately, Harris’ cover gets blown mid-mission when the Irani government apprehends and questions reporter Luna Cujai (Nina Toussaint-White). Harris and Doud must now traverse 400 treacherous miles to an extraction point in the titular city of Kandahar, Afghanistan all the while evading Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps officer Farzad Asadi (Bahador Foladi) and Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence agent Kahil (Ali Fazal) who are in hot pursuit. This is all done under the watchful eyes of CIA bigwigs Chris Hoyt (Paul Greengrass regular Corey Johnson) and Mark Lowe (Mark Arnold, he was Mick the b-balling bully in “Teen Wolf”) from the safety of Langley, Va.
“Kandahar” is helmed by stuntman-turned-director Ric Roman Waugh (he previously teamed with Butler on “Angel Has Fallen” and “Greenland” and the two currently have the sequel “Greenland: Migration” in pre-production) and penned by former military intelligence officer Mitchell LaFortune. The movie filmed in Al-'Ula, Saudi Arabia and is the first Western production to do so since “Lawrence of Arabia” back in the early 1960s.
This isn’t a piece of rah-rah, pro-America propaganda nor is it a complete condemnation of the West’s involvement in the Middle East. There’s an interesting clash of cultures at play here. Fimmel’s Chalmers is a Westerner who’s a devout Muslim. Foladi’s Asadi commits misdeeds (reluctantly it seems), but is also portrayed as a decent, doting family man who’s loving to his wife and children. Fazal’s Kahil is Muslim, but also embraces Western culture by vaping, rocking Gucci shades and rolling in a Range Rover blaring hip-hop.
Butler and Negahban cut sympathetic figures as Harris and Doud. I was rooting for Harris to get home to celebrate the high school graduation of his daughter Ida (Olivia-Mai Barrett). (There’s a weird, burgeoning subgenre of Butler’s action hero reuniting with his progeny between “Kandahar” and “Plane” from earlier this year.) I wanted Doud to get back to his family in Baltimore. These characters and the scenarios they find themselves in aren’t entirely dissimilar from those seen recently in “Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant,” but that movie and the performances of Jake Gyllenhaal and Dar Salim resonated with me much more deeply.
“Kandahar” will likely prove to be too dry and too politically ambiguous for many of Butler’s fans though they’ll get their thrills through a bravura nighttime chase sequence in which Harris dons night vision goggles to drive a truck evading a chopper and the crotch rocket-riding Kahil. I, like Mann, get a kick out of watching skillful people ply their trade skillfully … sometimes that’ll suffice.