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What the film is is a messy comment on messy circumstances in a messy place, Afghanistan, a country that may not know the order for decades and beyond, thanks to the United States’ decision to withdraw its armed forces from the region almost two years ago. What the film isn’t is a story about a struggling dad just trying to do his best, fighting his way through extraordinary dangers to unite with his estranged daughter, because Mitchell LaFortune’s script impresses that detail enough to keep it in the viewers’ minds, but not sufficient for it to motivate the plot. In fairness, there’s no better plot motivation than “haul ass over 400 miles of hostile territory and get the hell home,” but also, in fairness, if that’s all that “Kandahar” needs, then stacking the movie with a strained parent-child relationship is cheating at best and plain old unnecessary at worst.
Butler plays top CIA spook Tom Harris, who met in the introduction sabotaging an Iranian nuclear reactor. This could be the plot of its own movie. In “Kandahar,” it’s just the precipitating event. With his mission complete, Tom makes for the airport so he can fly home and attend his daughter’s high school graduation; he’s stopped by his handler, Roman (Travis Fimmel), who tempts him with one more gig. Easy money! No sweat! What could go wrong? Tom accepts, the gods of clandestine activity laugh, and before the new assignment gets going, he’s exposed as the perpetrator of the reactor explosion.
“Kandahar” makes it clear that the fault isn’t Tom’s. He’s a good, seasoned agent, not the type to leave a breadcrumb trail. He’d have gotten away with the whole thing if not for meddling journalist Luna Cujai, played by Nina Toussaint-White in the movie’s most thankless role. Iranian agents snatch her up no sooner than she gets Tom’s face broadcast across international media; like Tom’s daughter, Waugh forgets about Luna until the last 5 minutes of the movie. It’s nothing personal. Tom has to hoof it. The destruction of the reactor stirs up the Iranian government, represented by Quds officer Farzad (Bahador Foladi), the Pakistani government, represented by burned-out operative Kahil (Ali Fazal), ISIS, the Taliban, and a few stray warlords here and there, extra spices for the stew.
To qualify as an action movie, a movie must have action. “Kandahar” isn’t an action movie. It’s a war movie. Action occurs, yes, and some good action, too; one sequence, in particular, takes place at night, with little but gunfire and occasional POV shots through Tom’s infrared goggles to clarify what’s happening. But an action version of the same story would pare down the plot and let Butler go wild, gunning down anonymous bad guys. It might not include Luna, or high school graduation, or especially Butler’s co-star, Navid Negahban, who plays Mohammad, or “Mo” – Tom’s translator on the assignment that never was. Mo is essential to sculpting “Kandahar’s” identity as Afghan war cinema. This isn’t just a big, dumb, loud production about two men fleeing war-torn Afghanistan and leaving a trail of flaming wreckage in their wake. It’s a big, dumb, loud production that sincerely wants to make statements on the United States’ culpability in the nation’s present predicament.
“You risk your life for us, and then we tell you exactly what your country should look like and how you should act,” Tom tells Mo in a doleful monologue after that nighttime shootout. “Half the time, we don’t even say ‘thank you.’” Here, “Kandahar” finally lets the audience in on what Waugh and LaFortune want to communicate to them, the “stuff” of their work: an admission of accountability and an apology. They’re qualified to offer neither of these because they’re in the movie business and not the war business. Still, Butler is so good at bringing soul to his version of the macho American action hero that it’s impossible to take the message as anything other than genuine. Tom means it; Waugh means it; LaFortune means it.
They also mean it when they imply Farzard’s inner decency and put Kahil’s distaste for and discontent with his work right out in the open. If a movie’s location can be a character, then “Kandahar” characterizes Afghanistan, in its current condition, as a harsh and unforgiving place only the lucky few can escape. No one wants to be there. But Waugh can’t quite find a structure that facilitates both his goals as an action storyteller and his morals; little attention is paid to the people who live in Afghanistan, for one, save for stray reaction shots to remind us they’re there, and Mo’s own personal agenda – finding his lost sister-in-law – is, like Tom’s daughter, left in the margins despite its place in his background.
Still, a talented actor can breathe something like life into a screenwriting hole, and Negahban is very talented at conveying fundamental decency married with righteous anger; he gels nicely with Butler, two family men doing their best and caught in a perilous web woven through decades of violent theocratic rule, violent foreign intervention, war, war, and more war. “Kandahar” tries gamely to say anything of substance about the Hell that the U.S. and the Taliban have made of Afghanistan, and while what it says is broadly agreeable, it’s nothing new. In place of new, at least, we get to see Butler in his element as a man of compassion first and blazing guns second. [C+]