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‘Kandahar’ isn’t as nuanced as it thinks it is

© 2023 Open Road. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

The latest Gerard Butler-fights-people movie, Kandahar, left me with a lot of mixed feelings, largely because the movie itself wants to have it both ways, in a number of respects.

In this one, Butler is working for the CIA and manages to blow up an Iranian nuclear plant, making this yet another movie that’s super cool with beating those war drums. Butler’s cover gets blown, and he has to make a dash to Afghanistan so he can get picked up, along with an Afghan interpreter he lies to in order to have help along the way. The two are pursued not just by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, but also by a number of other interested parties who would like to sell Butler to the highest bidder, most especially a Pakistani intelligence agent who wears black and drives a sleek motorcycle.

Now, a lot of that is plainly reprehensible, but on the one hand, I’m actually kind of pleased Kandahar doesn’t make the villains vaguely Eastern European like a lot of movies do when they’re trying to avoid stepping in it. On the other hand, this means nearly every brown person who isn’t our interpreter friend is bad. On the third hand, the movie sort of nods at the fact that the men pursuing Butler at least have lives, as one Iranian talks about his daughter, and the Pakistani agent dreams of a transfer to Paris. On the fourth hand—and stay with me because I need your hands—however well-intentioned those things are, they come off as seriously patronizing attempts to cover the filmmakers’ rears by not making these people fully out-and-out evil. And it is certainly interesting to see the movie take a stab at laying out just how many different groups are trying to exert power in the region, even if it’s a pretty shallow examination.

Kandahar does seem to want to pay some respect to the Afghan interpreters who helped the U.S. for so many years, but the movie does it in a way that exposes a shocking lack of self-awareness. Butler at least apologizes for lying to the interpreter, but in another scene he uses the man as bait to draw out their attackers, and when he’s called on it, he says, “well, it worked!” There’s another version of this movie that examines this as a heightened example of the exploitation of Afghan allies by the U.S., but this isn’t that movie. Butler even gives a speech soon after about how important interpreters have been in Afghanistan and how they aren’t respected for their dangerous work, but he makes no reference to what he’s just done. I assume that would be too morally complicated.

But, sir, how is the action? Well, it’s clearly the best part of the movie. Butler is a peculiarly charismatic presence, in that he is able to occupy space and hold your attention in a way that doesn’t rely on him being a superhero, or even necessarily doing a whole lot. What we see on screen is often preposterous, but not so much so that you can’t imagine a person actually doing it, if he caught some breaks. The chases and explosions skirt the edge of plausibility, but they aren’t cartoonish fantasies. Or at least I think this is the case, as some of the scenes are so dark it's impossible to know what’s happening. I suppose it actually is that dark at night in the Afghan mountains, but also, we’re watching a movie.

Kandahar is a strange beast, in that it feels like an early 2000s action movie with a quick script rewrite to make it slightly less jingoistic. In the end, it’s not unwatchable, although some of it is plainly unforgiveable.

Kandahar is in theaters May 26th.

Fletcher Powell has worked at KMUW since 2009 as a producer, reporter, and host. He's been the host of All Things Considered since 2012 and KMUW's movie critic since 2016. Fletcher is a member of the Critics Choice Association.