Review: Kandahar Is Less Action Pic, More a Statement on the Futility of War

The third film from the director-actor combo of Ric Roman Waugh and Gerard Butler (Angel Has Fallen, Greenland) is a messy, chaotic work about the messy, chaotic way that modern wars tend to end—with no clear winner and confusion about what happens next for these war-torn nations and who will rise to power in the aftermath. In Kandahar, Butler plays undercover CIA operative Tom Harris, who is exceptionally good at his job but is by no means a superhero who would be incapable of mistakes and miscalculations that might result in others getting hurt or killed.

After carrying out a wildly successful mission in Afghanistan that results in an underground nuclear facility essentially imploding, Harris thinks he’s done with this war and possibly even the CIA. But he’s called upon to do one last mission before he flies home to finally be with his family. Although he’s reluctant, he agrees and hires local translator Mo (Navid Negahban), who lives abroad now but has returned searching for a missing family member. When their cover is blown and their mission exposed, they have only about 30 hours to fight their way out and catch a flight to safety. After them is a seemingly endless stream of killers from the Taliban, Isis, and the governments of a couple different countries who want Harris alive so they can sell them for a high price to someone who will make an example of him in a very public way.

The way that Waugh and screenwriter Mitchell LaFortune lay out the battlefield that Harris and Mo must navigate to get out of the country is meant to be cluttered and muddy, with the exception of a cool-as-hell Pakistani assassin named Kahil (Ali Fazal), who flies across the desert on a motorcycle. Despite expectations, Kandahar is not primarily an action movie, although there are certainly a handful of nicely executed set pieces. Instead, the film’s primary goal seems to be to give audiences a better understanding of the nature and un-winnability of modern warfare. It’s a battle between warlords and Western forces, neither of whom ever want to stop fighting.

More than once, some force or another bears down on the pair as they struggle to reach Kandahar, where they believe they can finally escape this place where everyone wants to kill them. The film feels more desperate than heroic and action-packed, and much as they did in Greenland, Waugh and Butler have built three-dimensional characters with backstories and reasons why we might actually want to see them survive this ordeal. Negahban is particularly good as a man who has lost his son to this conflict and is hoping he can save his sister before she is gone forever as well. But he’s a man of peace, so in one scene in which he comes face to face with a man indirectly responsible for his son’s death, his struggle to curb his bloodlust is palpable.

Very much by design, these filmmakers have crafted a unique antiwar film that allows ideas about the futility of war to rise to the surface, while also giving Butler another shot at reminding us what a strong actor he can be in the right hands. I still like Greenland better, but they are wildly different films, so comparing them doesn’t seem fair or necessary. I was pulled into this dense and complicated story because of its layers, not despite of them.

The film is now playing in theaters.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.