Directed by Ric Roman Waugh | Written by Mitchell LaFortune | 120 min | ▲▲△△△
The second Gerard Butler actioner this year — I confess I missed the earlier one, the surprisingly well-reviewed Plane — but this one reteams the Scottish star with his Greenland helmer, Waugh. That’s a promising start.
Also, the script is apparently based on actual events as written by the excellently named LaFortune, a US Army vet who “wants to use the experience from the Army to examine the morality of our conduct in foreign countries.” That’s a laudable ambition, Mitchell, but maybe you’d be better off writing something closer to Syriana or Three Kings rather than a picture with Gerry Butler in it. Accordingly, Mission Kandahar gets stuck in shallow genre elements that work against any real depth.
It’s stylish enough, thanks to Waugh’s professionalism. Shot entirely in Saudi Arabia, the film often looks terrific, delivering images of that country we’ve not seen before and an impressive amount of cinematic grit. If drone photography at the golden hour of all-terrain vehicles driving across the desert gets you hot, this is the movie for you.
Butler is Tom Harris, a CIA catspaw on loan from MI-6 who sabotages an Iranian nuclear facility. On his way out of the region he gets reassigned and joins up with an Afghan translator (Navid Negahban), but things go south. They’ve got 400 miles of desert to cross in order to reach an airfield in Kandahar and get aboard a British military transport, but the Iranians are in hot pursuit. A sportbike-riding Pakistani agent, Kahil (Ali Fazal), working with the Taliban is also on their trail.
This script, embedded as it is with LaFortune’s background, provides plenty of intrigue. That combined with the well-managed tone and fascinating locations makes for a compelling watch to start with. But why does it fall apart?
Too many unnecessary subplots is one issue: Nina Toussaint-White plays a British journalist who’s abducted by Iranian forces for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and at no point does her story seem essential to this film. We’re also never made to care about Harris’ personal life or daughter back home — all of that’s just a distraction.
Too little Travis Fimmel is another issue: He plays Harris’ CIA contact and the movie could use a lot more of his blue Husky eyes and rakish charm. The action beats, when they do arrive, aren’t terribly convincing, either.
Finally, Waugh thinks he’d rather make a Bond movie than a war thriller or compelling espionage picture. When, late in the running, two characters run across the desert toward each other firing their pistols you know you’ve crossed over into Looney Tunes territory. Too bad, because for a minute or two there this might’ve been something special.