Smarter than expected, but lacking in the action one might be expecting, Mission Kandahar is an unusual, familiar, but fulfilling thriller. Mission Kandahar (as it’s called in Canada for some reason, while just being known as Kandahar elsewhere in the world) re-teams stunt coordinator turned filmmaker Ric Roman Waugh with actor Gerard Butler for a cliched story of a spy trying to pull off a dangerous international mission, albeit this time told with a considerable amount of gravity and thought put into what it all could mean. People looking to Butler for another Plane styled action caper might leave Mission Kandahar slightly disappointed, but those in the mood for something slightly meatier could be pleasantly surprised.
Tom Harris (Butler), an MI-6 agent on loan to the CIA, has just pulled off a masterstroke of tradecraft, blowing up a secret Iranian nuclear reactor. Everything goes off smoother than expected, and divorcee Tom is eager to flee the country so he can get back to Glasgow for his daughter’s high school graduation. (If that point sounds familiar to anyone who saw Plane earlier this year, it’s because it’s more or less the same underlying character motivation.) But just as he’s about to leave, his handler in the country (Travis Fimmel) informs Tom that there’s a big money job going down that he can’t walk away from. The new mission: taking out an airstrip on the Iran/Afghanistan border. Paired up with an interpreter named Mo (Navid Negahban) who’s using this opportunity to go looking for his missing sister-in-law, Tom goes about his business until his cover is blown by a kidnapped British journalist (Nina Toussaint-White) who intended to publish a major story exposing CIA black-ops in the Middle East. The only hope Tom and Mo have of getting home alive is to travel several hundred miles through hostile territory and make it to an extraction point in Kandahar.
More interested with rampant political turmoil and hypocrisy than cut and dry heroics, Mission Kandahar doesn’t deliver thrills ever second, but the film is all the better for it. Writer Mitchell LaFortune’s script pits two highly imperfect antiheroes – a man reluctantly taking mercenary gigs for blood money and another driven by despair and a sense of revenge – and plunks them into increasingly dangerous situations eternally beyond their control. Across several borders in the region, territory is divided up among fractured sects, militias, governments, and gangs, all fighting for their own distinct sets of beliefs. A power vacuum has opened up in the region in recent years, and many organizations are trying to fill it. Allegiances and ideologies are constantly shifting, making Mission Kandahar more compelling as a paranoid cat-and-mouse thriller than a straight up action picture. The moral morass holds more weight here than any number of explosions, car chases, or shootouts in the middle of the desert. As one character astutely puts it in Mission Kandahar, “Ancient wars were fought for spoils. Modern wars aren’t meant to be won.”
That’s not to say that the storytelling perfectly offsets the overall low key approach of Mission Kandahar. Almost everything involving the reporter’s whistleblowing and Mo’s quest to find his relative are handled like afterthoughts. Everything involving Butler’s character trying to get out of the game is par-for-the-course fodder for most of the actor’s action movies. Fimmel’s character is compelling on one hand – a white CIA handler who’s very sincere about his commitment to the Islamic faith – but on the other, he’s simply there to make sure the story keeps going, regardless of whether or not his actions make logical sense. Weirdly, Mission Kandahar is so focused on realistically recreating a messy social and political climate that it forgets to make the human element just as strong in comparison. Almost all characters on both sides of the story wish they didn’t have to be party to all this bloodshed, but very little about how they feel outside of that overarching sentiment is well known. There’s a lot of melancholic loneliness and futility to be found in Mission Kandahar, but no real idea how to firmly integrate emotional complexity into its already messy storyline.
Butler and Waugh make a great team, furthering the relationship they established with the bad-but-successful sequel Angel Has Fallen and the shockingly moving and underrated disaster movie Greenland. Butler gets a chance to stretch the acting muscles viewers know he has but rarely gets to put to good use, especially opposite a wonderful scene partner like Negahban. And in Butler, Waugh finds a leading man capable of anchoring large scale action sequences with a considerable amount of believable confidence. While both are known as “action guys,” Butler and Waugh are always able to carve out spaces where art and thought can flourish. Even if a film doesn’t work, their pairing works wonders for whatever material they’re given.
It’s the little details – including a nice supporting performance from Ali Fazal as a motorcycle riding Pakistani spy hot on Tom and Mo’s trail – that make up for the fact that Mission Kandahar doesn’t have a ton of memorable action. The shootouts go pretty much as expected. Explosions are dodged. Sweaty standoffs have an adequate amount of tension. The decision to shoot nighttime sequences with natural lighting is a poor one, save for the film’s most memorable set-piece where a car and a helicopter are chasing one another with all their lights turned off. And for the most part, the routine nature of the action beats are forgivable because the story that has been built around them is sufficiently engaging. It’s not a movie one expects to watch for the story, but it’s that very element that ends up saving Mission Kandahar from mediocrity.
Mission Kandahar (or Kandahar if you’re reading this from outside Canada) opens in theatres everywhere on Friday, May 26, 2023.
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