Few actors enjoy more job security within their niche than Gerard Butler. If you need a tough-looking everyman to jump out of planes, strap bombs to the sides of buildings, and beat up faceless henchmen in a movie that nobody will know about until the day it’s released, he’s really the only guy you can call. Even as Hollywood keeps leaning more heavily on established IP while simultaneously lamenting the “death of the movie star” that those decisions inevitably create, Butler’s status as a man who can open instantly-forgotten films that make more money than God continues to rise.
In between stops on his quest to conquer every form of transportation known to man — “Plane” hit theaters in January and its sequel “Ship” is on the way — Butler found time to take a trip to the desert. His latest attempt at lucrative obscurity, Ric Roman Waugh’s “Kandahar,” sees him playing an elite CIA operative trying to navigate the labyrinth of underground nuclear weapons programs in the Middle East after the United States’ rushed withdrawal from Afghanistan turned the region into even more of a Wild West than it already was.
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Tom Harris — a Butler protagonist always needs one of the most generic names on the planet — is one of the CIA’s best men. A former MI6 agent (gotta explain Butler’s accent somehow!), Harris’ undercover work as a telecommunications repairman has become an essential part of the agency’s plan to identify and blow up underground nuclear weapons facilities in Iran.
But — stop if you’ve heard this one before — his devotion to his job has left his personal life in a shambles. A call from his wife makes it clear that his presence at his daughter’s upcoming graduation is non-negotiable — and while he’s at it, he really needs to get around to signing those divorce papers she sent over.
He’s ready to pack up his things and head home to be a father for once, but an old CIA friend asks for his help with one last job. Tom isn’t interested, but reconsiders when he learns he could put his daughter through medical school with three days of work. All he has to do is cross the border into Afghanistan and travel through some of the most hostile Taliban-occupied territory to blow up a nuclear power plant.
Things quickly go awry once he crosses the border and learns that he doesn’t have nearly as much support as he thought he did. His CIA bosses in America are prepared to leave him to die, but he’s able to negotiate passage to Europe on an MI6 plane that’s leaving the next day. All he has to do is survive the quagmire for 30 hours and make his way to the plane — but extracting himself from enemy territory proves to be the biggest challenge of his career.
These movies all come with a certain predictability — it’s probably not a spoiler to reveal that Butler plays a total badass who is capable of prevailing whenever all of the guys in suits insist that he’s screwed. But the most surprising thing about “Kandahar” is how sharp the writing is. Former special ops agent Mitchell LaFortune’s tight script makes a point to balance spectacle with something resembling substance, portraying multiple intelligence agencies from around the world working together to execute an impossible mission. Many of the action sequences leave something to be desired, but they never derail the film because they’re all justified with clever plot choices.
It’s generally unrealistic to expect a nuanced antagonist in these kinds of movies, especially if the script pits an American or European against some kind of nonwhite “foreigner.” But Kandahar largely steers clear of the subgenre’s more disappointing racial tropes. Sure, the biggest villains come from Afghanistan and Iran. But rather than portray “Middle Easterners” as some kind of threatening monolith like so many comparable movies have done, LaFortune makes it clear that even the most hostile actors in these countries are fractured into countless factions with dramatically different goals. They might be united in their hatred of America, but his exploration of the way terrorist coalitions can be divided on racial, gender, and strategic issues is one of the more interesting parts of the film.
For better or worse, “Kandahar” is a throwback to the kind of Tom Clancy-inspired geopolitical thrillers that used to be a bi-weekly occurrence in the 1990s. But if you’ve ever found yourself wondering why Hollywood doesn’t make films like “The Hunt for Red October” or “Air Force One” anymore, you might have found your new favorite movie.
An Open Road Films release, “Kandahar” is now playing in theaters.
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