A gritty, Middle Eastern Sicario riff
Ric Roman Waugh is a serious American filmmaker whose work has commanded my attention since his remarkable prison thriller Shot Caller back in 2017. He’s since upped his profile with such Hollywood hits as Angel Has Fallen and Greenland with star Gerard Butler (not to mention the criminally under seen and under appreciated National Champions). With Kandahar marking his third high profile collaboration with Butler, they’ve become fast collaborators and, in Waugh’s own words, “brothers”.
I became a fan of Waugh’s work long before learning that he is a resident of Austin, TX, where I’ve also made my home these last 13 years. And thus it was possible for the Austin Film Festival to host an advanced screening of Kandahar with Waugh in attendance for a Q&A. I went into the film knowing almost nothing about it beyond star and director, which was all I needed to know. Butler’s projects can range wildly in quality and tone, but when these two collaborate, audiences are generally in for a more somber and chillingly effective tone. Probably the most grounded of their collaborations, Kandahar is a white knuckle action vehicle exploring the complex and politically grey areas in the Middle East that most ignorant Westerners (myself included) really know little about. Writer Mitchell LaFortune was the initiator of this project, himself a veteran of America’s wars in the Middle East. He brings to this project a crackling sense of political, cultural, and religious complexity that reminded Waugh of Sicario. Somewhat less black-heartedly cynical than Sicario (which is a full on masterpiece), there is none the less a kinship between these projects.
Kandahar tells the stories of Butler’s experienced CIA operative Tom Harris and co-lead Navid Negahbahn’s Mo. The two are brought together after things go south and they need to get to a plane to escape Afghanistan after Harris’ black op is leaked by the media. Mo is an Afghani family man and translator whose family has settled safely in Baltimore after the war. He’s really only back in his home town because his sister in law has vanished under the new Taliban rule. Travis Fimmel’s fixer-style character Roman (himself a CIA agent who has adopted Islam as his personal faith) smashes these disparate men together and does his best to help them escape from a situation that is essentially unsurvivable. It isn’t the 400 miles they’ll need to travel that’s going to kill them, it’s the seemingly dozens of factions operating in the post-war region of Iran/Afghanistan/Pakistan. Maybe the first major fictional story I’ve seen depicted on film after America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, Kandahar is fascinating enough simply for telling a gripping story in that setting. There’s also a bit of fictional (?) flourish as Waugh does see himself as an entertainer first and foremost. Kandahar openly depicts a CIA black op in which the USA covertly destroys an Iranian nuclear facility. That inciting incident has a heightened and massive scale, but the complexity of the fallout from that opener is where the movie really thrives. Warring factions of Taliban are only one of the challenges Harris and Mo will face. The most formidable (and straight up fuckin’ badass) threat they’ll face is Pakistani operative Kahil (Ali Fazel in a superstar performance). Kahil is a classic spy movie character in the sense that he drives around the dessert on a black motorcycle that deploys out of the back of a truck like Spy Hunter or something. It honestly rules and Kahil feels like a Pakistani “asset” straight out of a Bourne movie. But he’s ruthlessly effective precisely because he knows the region and knows the power dynamics and works deals with different warlords to suit his agendas. Harris and Mo also have their own relationships and enemies that will make their journey a figurative minefield as well as a literal one.
Primarily a tense action-thriller, Kandahar has multiple action set pieces that had me riveted. There’s a nighttime battle between Gerard Butler and a helicopter that must be seen to be believed, and the finale is an absolute nail-biter as well. But on top of the kick-ass action there is a component of regional reality at play that forces an American audience to see the chaos that our own country has wreaked on that region. Mo and Harris have conflicts and conversations along the way that bring a humanity to the senseless war we fought on that soil. The movie isn’t perfect and perhaps does ultimately revel in the superpowers of the American machine as much as it criticizes it. Thus is ever the tension in war films: Are they anti-war screeds or do they praise the war machine? Ultimately Kandahar goes the human route, making us just want to see Harris and Mo get home to their families, but dragging us through the ethically murky reality of the situation we have partially wrought in the process. Waugh delivers a thrilling action film and an adventure filled with heroes and villains we’re compelled by. You can’t ask for much more than that.
And I’m Out.
Kandahar hits theaters in the USA May 26th, 2023 from Open Road Pictures