‘Kandahar’ Review: Propaganda or Progressive Political Thriller?

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Kandahar (2023) © Open Road Films

In Kandahar, following the destruction of a nuclear base in Iran, CIA operative Tom Harris is on the run from agents from multiple countries.

★★★✰✰

At first glance, Kandahar, where the basic premise is that CIA operative Tom Harris (Gerard Butler) is on the run following the destruction of a nuclear base, is certainly a questionable film. Is this another American action thriller set in the Middle East with an unabashed pro-American message? Or could it be that there is more complexity to it than it seems? Thankfully and surprisingly, there is complexity to it—quite a lot of for a mainstream American thriller of this type (and especially for a Gerard Butler movie). Kandahar has some stale elements, but it is ultimately a step in the right direction.

The setup is simple: Tom Harris is an undercover operative who, after a successful mission in Iran, is hunted by agents from around the world. Despite this simplicity, Kandahar is a pleasant surprise due to two important elements: complexity and humanisation. The complexity of the film is surprising for a mainstream American action thriller, a genre that has been criticised for jingoism and excessive focus on America. Kandahar is set in across multiple countries, taking place in Iran, the UAE, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and America, and most importantly it never makes one country or character the good or the bad guy. There are numerous character arcs that give the plot a chance to grow; thankfully, most of the stories pay off in the end.

Kandahar also critiques American imperialism, most notably when a character whom Tom Harris must get out of the warzone explodes at Butler’s character for what America is doing to the regions that the film is set in. In addition, Kandahar makes a distinction between Islam and terrorism, and with that faith and fundamentalism, which is a very refreshing and welcome angle to this film. This is credit to the script, as well as to the director Ric Roman Waugh’s approach to making films.

He often puts a more realistic twist on his premises, such as in Angel Has Fallen where he took the franchise in a darker, more serious direction, or in Greenland where he focused on the tragedy and human angle of worldwide cataclysmic event, instead of the spectacle and thrills of it like in a Roland Emmerich film. Kandahar also portrays reality and doesn’t represent idealistic versions of the countries portrayed, showing people cursing, hosting indulgent, lavish parties, or having sex. In a way, the film feels like an apology for London Has Fallen, a previous Butler film where there was a very one-sided, borderline xenophobic portrayal of Islam.

Kandahar (2023) © Open Road Films

The characters of Kandahar also have relatable, human angles to them. Butler’s character is going through a divorce, whilst his job prevents him from time with his daughter. While basic and cliché, it is an attempt to flesh out Tom Harris and give the film stakes. Navid Negahban’s Mohammad Doud has a backstory regarding his family, specifically about his son who was killed. He is easily the best explored character in Kandahar and carries the emotional core of it. Even the two main antagonists have a degree of personality. This includes the cocky, womanizing agent from Pakistan, Kahil Nasir (Ali Fazal), and the American agent, Roman Chalmers (Travis Fimmel), who lives a lavish lifestyle in Dubai and is by all accounts a metaphor for American imperialism. The former has a moment where he speaks to child who has been indoctrinated by a terrorist group about “real faith”, and the latter is given an element where he essentially joins the Islamic faith.

Despite these strengths, there are still some questionable elements in Kandahar. At the end of the day, who is the closest thing to a hero? The American agent. Who saves the day in the end? The CIA. These aspects show a sense of American power in the area and gives more of a mixed approach than a balanced one. In addition, Kandahar wastes its female characters, as most of them are relegated to wives or lovers. The more interesting female character of a reporter who exposes the imperialistic policies of America is sidelined for much of the film.

Ultimately, Kandahar is nowhere near as thrilling as it wants to be due to its focus on politics. As the film tries to be a thriller mixing both action and politics, it falters somewhat in the former aspect. Despite these problematic and stale elements, Kandahar is a surprisingly mature and complex look at the politics of the regions it depicts, and is not one-sided, jingoistic propaganda, due to well-explored characters and a balanced, complex world view. Kandahar is a step forward for American political thrillers and for Gerard Butler.

The Verdict

Kandahar is not as thrilling as it aims to be, but it compensates for this lack of action engagement with a surprisingly nuanced world view, as well as impressively formed characters.

Words by Balázs Kökényesy

Kandahar is on Amazon Prime Video now.


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