The latest Gerard Butler action movie, Kandahar, falls flat — go rent Plane instead

2 out of 5 stars

One of this year’s pleasant cinematic surprises was the Gerard Butler vehicle Plane. Though it won’t win any awards and certainly leans into its conservative politics, as a B-movie action-thriller, it was, well… thrilling. In recent years, Butler has leaned into a kind of b-circuit role as a macho outsider ready to solve complex socio-political issues with brute strength. Much like Liam Neeson, who occupies a similar lane, Butler has created an action-hero persona that connects with a passionate, if not more niche, audience than a traditional action-adventure star. 

Kandahar, his second action-thriller of the year, hits many of the same beats as Plane. Some scenes feel copy-pasted from one to another, such as one moment when a man from a control room praises Butler’s Tom Harris from afar, “I like this guy,” which feels like a direct mirror of a character in a control room in Plane who, upon hearing Butler subduing a drunken passenger, utters more or less the same phrase. But Kandahar falters where Plane soars.

In Kandahar, Gerard Butler plays Tom Harris, an undercover CIA operative stuck deep in hostile territory in Afghanistan who must fight his way out, alongside his Afghan translator, to an extraction point in Kandahar. After a somewhat intriguing cold open where Harris poses as an internet provider, swaying incredulous soldiers with high-speed footage of a live football game, the movie slows down to a glacial pace. Running nearly two hours, much of the film’s first half has minimal action and essentially occupies itself with unengaging and flat exposition. Bogged down by this pacing miscalculation, the audience is already half checked-out by the time the movie gets going. 

Kandahar Gerard Butler
Navid Negahban and Gerard Butler in Kandahar

The action in the second half is above average, though. It’s thrilling, a race against time, as characters try to go from point A to point B with many obstacles impeding their path. Butler is a formidable and remarkably vulnerable screen presence, and his screen partner for this second half of the film, ​​Navid Negahban, is equally compelling. Though the film loses steam in terms of momentum early on, the script nonetheless feels like a notch above your average American propaganda flick, examining pretty overtly the long-term damage inflicted by modern warfare. 

The problem is the film can’t quite reconcile its action ambitions with the political intrigue at the centre of the character relationships. The movie, though interesting in some ways on paper, feels limp up on the screen. Though it has some compelling sequences, including some rather aesthetically audacious moments, the movie fails to come together. It’s too vague, torn between its big dumb movie style and dealing with the complexity of war. The film also features some ludicrously silly moments (including some hilariously out-of-place needle drops) that deflate any energy or vibe that the film might have going for it. 

While some B-movie action stars seem checked out, Butler never does. He’s committed not only to delivering surprisingly good action but rooting his characters in a real and varied emotional place (though, with some similarities — he’s often a divorced and/or single father). Undeniably, he’s a charismatic and engaging screen presence; it’s just unfortunate that Kandahar fails to excite as far as this year’s movies go. ■

Kandahar (directed by Ric Roman Waugh)

Kandahar opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, May 26.

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