Gerard Butler’s Trip to Kandahar Is a Bust

Movies Reviews Gerard Butler
Gerard Butler’s Trip to Kandahar Is a Bust

Before Kandahar, Gerard Butler and Ric Roman Waugh began their working relationship with Angel Has Fallen, the third in Butler’s series of absurd, dimwitted geopolitical terrorism thrillers. It is easily the best of the three, while also serving as an airplane-cinema knockoff of The Fugitive. Having semi-famously starred in Dirtbag Heat in the form of Den of Thieves, having recently starred in a movie simply titled Plane, for God’s sake, it would seem easy enough for Butler to hire Waugh for all manner of ground-beef-and-potatoes-hold-the-potatoes movies. Yet the pair seems to have loftier aims, and the uncommonly ground-level disaster thriller Greenland suggested that they weren’t entirely misplaced. It was basically Geostorm without the Geostorm, which sounds foolhardy, but managed to bring pathos back to the sight of a marriage-challenged man’s-man confronted with the apocalypse.

Kandahar, Butler and Waugh’s third film together, tries to pull off a similar trick. Technically speaking, it works: Once again, they’ve made a film that is more serious and grounded than your potential mental picture of a dissolute, unbathed Butler rampaging through the ruins of a fallen genre. They’ve also made a crushing bore, albeit one that takes a little time to reveal itself as such.

The movie begins with suspense, rather than action: Tom Harris (Butler) is tinkering with some underground wires in Iran, and disarms suspicious local soldiers not by literally knocking the weapons out of their hands, but showing them football on his phone, as proof that he really is fixing up their internet connection. Really, though, he’s a CIA spook-for-hire, sabotaging a nuclear power plant before heading home. As if attempting to reassure the Butler faithful, this short sequence of tension is followed quickly by establishment of the weary-tough-guy trifecta for ol’ Tom: A practically-ex-wife whose divorce papers he won’t sign! A daughter, poised for disappointment if he misses her upcoming big life event! And an unwillingness to step back from a frequently life-threatening job that, when not backed up with any kind of convincing psychology, seems like illogical stubbornness for the sake of the plot!

By the time Kandahar gets to One Last Job, there’s relief, which turns out to be unfounded: Finally, a cliché that’s at least potentially fun. A handler reaches out to Tom to sell him on fitting in one more mission before his flight home. Informed that it will pay enough to send his daughter to med school, Tom agrees and embarks – only for his cover to be blown when journalist Luna (Nina Toussaint-White) exposes the CIA’s plans. The mission must be ditched as Tom and his translator Mo (Navid Negahban) evade enemy soldiers in Afghanistan and make their way to an extraction site in Kandahar. (Yes, there are multiple elements this movie share with a recent one by Guy Ritchie, which looks a bit better by comparison.)

Commendably, the movie is nearly halfway over before the filmmakers pull the trigger on their first chase scene. Less admirable is the way this time is handed over to plot threads and supporting characters that the second half of Kandahar doesn’t really bother weaving into Tom’s story. The reporter gets kidnapped, then disappears for the better part of an hour. Mo wants to help find a lost family member. Some guys periodically watch from a Langley control room. Ali Fazal plays the role of Hot Assassin on Motorcycle, which sounds like more fun than it really is. What starts off seeming like an ensemble dwindles and dawdles without much development. At this point, even fans of Greenland may recall how that movie wasn’t especially rich in memorable characters. Butler and Waugh offered enough human-level urgency to fake it.

All Kandahar has in its second hour is Waugh’s unimpressive action staging. Multiple scenes unfold under cover of such studiously realistic darkness that they’re not particularly legible; in one sequence, Waugh uses the expressively alien look of black-and-white night-vision, only to drop the visual conceit before it develops a particular mood. However, connoisseurs of overhead shots where a single car trails sand clouds as it zooms through the desert will be overjoyed. Kandahar has a lot of those. It also has lines like this: “You used me as bait.” And: “What’s the play?” And, most damning in its evocation of faint praise, inapplicable here: “I like this guy. He is good.”

Butler is good, yes, sometimes – most often when he’s in a movie that knows it’s junk and manages to keep a straight face about it. Kandahar gets the straight face right, but seems woefully convinced that it’s a serious drama, right down to the wailing-woman soundtrack that so many Hollywood and Hollywood-adjacent movies about the Middle East bust out to show they’re down with the anguish. This particular production doesn’t have much insight about the how or why of that anguish; just that a lot of dusty, grim action movies are made as a result.

Director: Ric Roman Waugh
Writer: Mitchell LaFortune
Starring: Gerard Butler, Navid Negahban, Bahador Foladi, Ali Fazal, Nina Toussaint-White, Travis Fimmel
Release Date: May 26, 2023

Jesse Hassenger is associate movies editor at Paste. He also writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including Polygon, Inside Hook, Vulture, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching or listening to, and which terrifying flavor of Mountain Dew he has most recently consumed.

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