Ric Roman Waugh’s latest action flick hits the ground running. “Kandahar” launches viewers into a war-torn Afghanistan, complete with CIA operatives, mushroom-shaped explosions and futuresque gadgets. But as the film sprints to include all the markers of an action movie, it skips over opportunities for richer representations of its complex subject matter. “Kandahar” fulfills its promise to provide a delightfully suspenseful two hours, as entertaining as it is unchallenging.
In the opening shots of “Kandahar,” the camera pans over a power plant nested between the dunes and mountains of the Iranian desert. The film’s protagonist, undercover CIA agent Tom Harris (Gerard Butler), is filling it with explosives. He completes his mission successfully and returns to Afghanistan, only to be exposed in a document leak days later. Chaos ensues. Harris is chased through the desert by agents in his last attempt to flee the Middle East, his only companion being his Afghan translator Mo (Navid Negahban). The film follows desert gunfights, helicopter chases and encounters with hostile political forces, occasionally interspersing the violence with underdeveloped anti-war sentiments.
There are attempts to discuss the complexity of the conflict in the Middle East, but such conversations feel out of place and superficial in the context of the film’s genre. Characters briefly express their trauma before returning their attention to gunfights and stunts — in other words, they condemn war in one moment and proceed to perpetuate its atrocities in the next. In one scene, Harris stifles tears as he tells Mo that his last translator was executed by the Taliban for assisting the United States. The two come to the conclusion that war is bad, and pop music begins to play as the camera pans back over the desert. The stories these moments seek to grapple with are tragic, but the way they are represented in the film comes across as forced and awkward.
One of the film’s most memorable characters is a slick motorcycle assassin named Kahil (Ali Fazal). He scrolls through dating apps during meetings, listens to loud rap music and vapes in his Range Rover. When he is called back from a one night stand to find and execute Harris, he begrudgingly dons a menacing all-black outfit and numerous weapons.
Kahil’s motorcycle hunt for Harris inspires enchanting camera work. It is mesmerizing to watch the camera twist above rock formations and sand dunes, the twinkle of cities shining in the distance, Fazal’s deadly motorcycle kicking up clouds of dust in the background.
No character in “Kandahar” tips fully into caricature. There are moments that feel predictable and simplistic — for example, Harris’ addiction to his job and Kahil’s constant vaping. Yet, each character is given an emotional landscape that helps viewers understand the psychological damage of war. Harris wants to return to his family, and Kahil wants to leave Afghanistan for somewhere new, such as Paris or London. Though the depth of these characters can be fairly shallow, there is a refreshing emphasis on humanity for those who might typically be portrayed as plain villainous.
Nonetheless, the film’s script often falls flat. When Harris’ friend Roman tries to convince him to take on “one last job,” he says, “We’re gonna go in there and destroy their whole nuclear program before they have the chance to build a big bomb.” The sentence gets the point across, but leaves the viewer wondering how difficult it might have been to find a more nuanced phrasing of “a big bomb.”
“Kandahar” is enjoyable in the sense that it is easy to follow and packed with action, evoking pleasure partially thanks to its formulaic nature. However, that simplicity is the very thing that prevents the film from creating provocative representations of its own conflict. “Kandahar” reaches the bar it sets for itself, but it fails to surprise beyond a handful of jumpscares.