Gerard Butler seems to have found himself on a similar path as Jason Statham and Liam Neeson. They're aging U.K. men who go from one action title to the next because they can look tough, seem competent holding a gun, and their recognizable names will draw out the standard action movie popcorn fan.
There's nothing wrong with finding something you're good at and sticking with it. But "Kandahar" is a film determined to reach higher than some of the recent movies of its lead actor.
This isn't "Angel Has Fallen" or "Last Seen Alive." There's a surprising amount of humanity here that pushes the movie beyond what most would come to expect from a standard popcorn action flick like "Plane" (which was certainly a decent film in its own right).
Butler plays a spy/mercenary named Tom Harris, working undercover in Iran as a telecommunications engineer. While pretending to work for a Swiss company, Butler actually gives U.S. operatives access to a nuclear facility in Iran.
The United States is successful in destroying the entire facility, and naturally, the Iranian forces want revenge. Butler manages to escape and winds up in Dubai, where an American military operative offers him a stack of cash for yet another job, this time in Afghanistan. He initially declines, determined to catch a flight back home to the U.K. to see his daughter graduate.
But the operative reminds Harris his daughter wants to go to medical school. And with the money Harris will earn from this job, he can pay for her to go anywhere. So, he reluctantly accepts and soon finds himself in a place America recently retreated from with an assignment to destroy an airstrip near the Iranian border.
Harris is teamed up with an Afghan translator he comes to call "Mo" (Navid Negahban).
Before the two can begin their assignment, a journalist leaks the names of several undercover CIA operatives working in Iran. Harris' face is plastered on every television in the Middle East. The spy soon finds his cover blown and his assignment canceled.
With Iranian forces and Taliban mercenaries closing in on Harris, he and his translator have one shot at an exit. They need to get to an old CIA base in the province of Kandahar where a British plane will be waiting to pick them up. But the window is tight, and the desert is full of hostile men.
Butler is the man who fires the shots and who drives most of the action. And what Director Ric Roman Waugh does so well in "Kandahar" is to recognize Butler's specialty as an action star and build the pieces of a competent thriller around him.
The leading man doesn't need much for audiences to understand what he wants. He's trying to get home to his family. Plenty of people want him dead. Simple enough.
But insulating that primary drive are other characters who are well-positioned to provide the human moments needed to tell a compelling story. Butler doesn't need to get deep into this character because Negahban is right next to him every step of the way. This is a translator who lost his son, whose sister-in-law was dispatched for being a teacher. And whose entire home has turned against him for helping the Americans.
Negahban is the heart of this movie. His vulnerabilities as a grieving father and convictions as a Muslim who denies himself the tempting moment of vengeance do all the emotional heavy lifting so Butler is free to run and gun.
Serving as the primary antagonist for Harris is a Pakistani spy named Kahil (Ali Fazal), who has been ordered to capture the man responsible for destroying Iran's nuclear facility so he can be sold on the open market to the highest bidder.
Fazal delivers all the suave confidence this movie needs, driving through the desert on his black motorcycle and constantly remaining on Harris' tail, even as the operative is chased by a member of the Iranian military named Farzad Asadi (Bahador Foladi). Fazal races through the desert fueled by charisma. He tells the Taliban they need to modernize and stop the beheadings and beating women. Fazal uses dating apps and vapes. He pauses to tell a child militant to actually read the Quran instead of relying on the violent men in his life to tell him what it says.
"Kandahar" paints a complicated picture of a fractured Afghanistan. It's full of fighters who owe their allegiances to different people for reasons ranging from power, to their own twisted sense of faith. It's wildly difficult for an American film to ever accurately capture all the nuances and perfectly reflect the reality of that nation. But "Kandahar" does more than most U.S. action films set in that war-torn locale.
The movie comes complete with a complex rotation of antagonists and forces at work within Afghanistan chasing after Harris. It's an intricate mural of violence with several players all dancing on the spinning plates kept in motion by writer Mitchell LaFortune. While the lead may be simple, the evolving narrative and characters around him are anything but.
Of course, the real secret sauce from Waugh comes in the form of pausing for human moments. Mo has a scene where he visits the grave of his son and weeps aloud, wishing he'd died instead of his child. Farzad's death isn't just part of some nameless body count. His wife gets two scenes in the movie, and one of them is her learning of her husband's death and crying.
Kahil's aforementioned conversation with the child militant where the spy urges him to read his holy book and see what's actually in there, determining the truth for himself. All of these moments add up to a two-hour runtime. But they're desperately necessary to move this film from a standard popcorn flick to a narrative that successfully punches above its weight.
And having a powerful score from composer David Buckley certainly helps, too. Don't treat "Kandahar" like "another Gerard Butler action flick," even for those who like them. Expect more from this movie. Because it delivers.