Let me just start by saying this right off the bat. Kandahar is legit. It is possibly the best movie-based surprise I have had this year. I will come on to why in a moment. First up, the basics.
Kandahar is a brand new movie, just released on Amazon Prime in the US and major Western markets. The action movie stars the ever-reliable Gerard Butler and is directed by his long-term go-to director Ric Roman Waugh. The supporting cast features Ali Fazal, Navid Negahban, Bahador Foladi, Nina Toussaint-White, Tom Rhys Harries, Vassilis Koukalani, Mark Arnold, Corey Johnson, and Travis Fimmel.
The movie starts with Tom Harris (Butler) and his partner posing as telecoms engineers under contract in Iran. Harris is ex-MI6, and now a freelance undercover operative working for the CIA. His mission leads to the catastrophic failure of centrifuges in a covert Iranian uranium enrichment plant, setting back their efforts to create a bomb by decades. He exfils to Dubai, ready to catch a flight back to London. There he is tempted by another job right on the Afghan – Iranian border by his CIA handler.
When a crusading, but misguided reporter blows the cover on the Iranian centrifuge job, she doesn’t just endanger herself. The Iranians become aware the man they want is operating in their border regions, and so do other people. As the situation unfolds, the Pakistani ISI, ISIS, The Iranian Quds Force, and the Taliban all scramble to claim him as a prize for their various objectives, while the CIA and MI6 scramble to arrange an extraction.
Eventually, even the newly constituted Afghan Special Forces and the Tajik Militia become involved, while Harris and his interpreter must make a dash for Kandahar and safety, surrounded by constantly shifting alliances.
I said this movie was a surprise. I went in expecting a standard action movie, and I got something far, far more. It does have action scenes. They are extremely well-staged. They are not over the top. They do not require much suspension of disbelief. Like the movie overall, there is a hard streak of reality running right through the center. Stand-out sequences include an ambush attempt where the multiple players unwittingly converge in traffic, and a nail-biting game of cat and mouse in the deep desert darkness between a helicopter and jeep involving night vision.
What is also a surprise is that the movie takes the time for some thoughtful pauses to reflect on the absolute mess that region is, and how it was always destined to be so, despite our hamfisted attempts at nation-building. As Harris explains:
“Ancient wars were fought for spoils. Modern wars aren’t meant to be won.”
It does this in an even-handed way, without the modern Western need for self-flagellation. The complex web of loyalties and interfering regional influences are as impactful on the situation as the war against Al Qaeda was. It does this with both emotion, but also with humor in a few places. Mention is made of how the bungled exit from Afghanistan left the Taliban with the 8th best-equipped armed forces on the planet. When riding around in a new American SUV is questioned, the local assures Harris that so many were left behind at the US Embassy that every drug dealer and warlord in Afghanistan now owns one.
Another big surprise is how even-handed the movie is with the antagonists. They are all motivated by very different drivers, and with different masters, but at the end of the day they are presented as human beings. As the dead bodies pile up, we are also shown that people are left behind, and people all think they are fighting for something worthwhile.
There is a big lesson here for Hollywood. We are constantly talking about the cost of movies these days. Kandahar was made for a budget of less than $70 million but it looks and feels way, way more expensive. The last collaboration between Waugh and Butler was Greenland which had a production budget of $35 million, despite a world-ending scenario. Their last Has Fallen effort had a budget of $40 million.
These are solid, reliable actioners that don’t look cheap at all. Yet whole movies are being made for a cost somewhere in the region of a few episodes of a high-profile streaming show. Movie studios need to get Butler and Waugh on the phone and start asking them questions about how they are doing this.
Kandahar is getting mixed reviews out there in normo land. I think those reviews are flat-out wrong. It is well worth your time. Crack open some beers and fire up your home cinema. It is available right now on Amazon Prime.
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