Movie Review: Just Get Gerard Butler to “Kandahar”

As this review is publishing, Hollywood screenwriters are still on strike, hoping to acquire better compensation for all the platforms their work appears on and unionized protection from all the things that AI-generated writing could take away.

Watching a strictly-formula thriller like “Kandahar,” one can understand their alarm. It feels as if it was conceived, scripted and cast by machine.

It’s a quest/chase actioner that bounces through Middle East intrigues on the dusty roads of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

It stars Gerard Butler, a workaholic spy who’s just helped his CIA “black ops” unit sabotage and blow up an Iranian nuclear plant. Tom has an exit strategy, a wife waiting for him to “sign those papers” back in London and a daughter’s graduation to get to.

But as he’s about to dash home, “one more job” comes up. He takes it. He’s got his “reasons.”

He’s sent a translator/guide (Navid Negahban), an older man, an Afghan native now living in America with his own “reasons” for taking on this gig.

And when they’re compromised, they have to cover 400 miles by truck and luck to make it to an “extraction point,” the famous war-torn city of the title.

They will take help from friends and face double crosses as they’re pursued by Taliban warlords ISIS, Iranians and a matinee-idol Pakistani secret agent in a black jumpsuit on a black motorcycle.

The stakes have our man Tom/Gerry growling “You’ll last longer when they start pulling your fingernails off,” and an Iranian villain answering a hostage’s “You said I could GO HOME” pleas with “You WILL. As a MARTYR!”

Firefights, oddly-conceived battles, payoffs and secret grief and “noble sacrifice,” “Kandahar ” is just a grab bag of action pic cliches.

Tell me a machine couldn’t have conceived, negotiated, packaged/cast and scripted this utterly generic road picture. While another AI program filled in the blanks while generating a review. Ahem.

The multiple competing agendas/points of view give the film the veneer of complexity. We try to follow the Pakistani (Ali Fazal) as he works his sources, pays off warlords and hunts a quarry he wants to “sell on the open market.” The Iranians are led by a fanatical Revolutionary Guard Colonel (Bahador Foladi) whose “pawn” in this game is taking a journalist (Elnaaz Norouzi) who helped “expose” the CIA’s involvement, and is TV-reporter pretty, the perfect hostage.

Taliban and ISIS factions also figure, but no money was spent on casting “leaders” for them.

And naturally, generic CIA honchos are watching all this unfold via drone images with strict “rules of engagement” that don’t allow them to engage.

Characters are forgotten, story threads sort of left hanging and the Saudi locations are no more impressive than any other place substituting for Afghanistan, and make one wonder if Gerard Butler & Co. have gone Phil Mikkelson, cinema-washing a bloody regime by working with its entities to make a mediocre movie.

A few wowza sequences lift “Kandahar” — a spirited chase through city traffic in what is meant to be Herat, Afghanistan, a night pursuit uses that “Midnight Special” stunt of keeping the lights off driving with night-vision goggles, which help a little when they’re chased down and must shoot their way out of another jam.

I say “their way,” but really, the movie is strictly a Gerry Butler vehicle, and he does almost all the fighting, if not all the emoting.

But in surrounding him with an almost-faceless and limited-fame/little-screen-charisma supporting cast, the picture has no pop or pathos between the sometimes top drawer action beats.

Hitchcock said, “Good villains make good thrillers,” and that’s really “Kandahar’s” undoing. All these possibilities, and nobody wanted to spend a dime on a “name” heavy — in the CIA, in Iran, in Afghanistan?

Fazal is a well-known Indian actor, and he gives us a taste of contemptuous professionalism and stands out from the many other villains. But he’s not on the screen enough, thanks to the many groups/agendas the Mitchell LaFortune script (tell me that doesn’t sound like an AI-generated “action film writer’s name”) piles on.

Every checkbox trope about this movie feels familiar, like we’ve seen it multiple times before, not necessarily always starring Gerry Butler.

Yes he’s a credible, charismatic action star who always delivers the goods, even in middling fare like this.

But if you have the money to fake a nuclear explosion, you’d still better set some of it aside for colorful actors and maybe a rewrite or two. “Kandahar” may only feel like the emotionally-flat, generic action beats AI future. But as of now, the only movies that work have to let us see and feel the human touch.

Rating: R for violence and language

Cast: Gerard Butler, Navid Negahban, Ali Fazal, Bahador Foladi and Elnaaz Norouzi

Credits: Directed by Ric Roman Waugh, scripted by Mitchell LaFortune. An Open Road release.

Running time: 1:59


About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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