2023, R, 119 min. Directed by Ric Roman Waugh. Starring Gerard Butler, Navid Negahban, Ali Fazal, Travis Fimmel, Elnaaz Norouzi, Ray Haratian.

REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., May 26, 2023

There are no good men in Kandahar. There are only operatives, spies, warlords, and zealots. Actually, that's not quite true. There is Mohammad (Negahban), the Afghan translator dragged back from Baltimore to post-American-occupation Afghanistan to simply meet a CIA contractor, Tom (Butler), when he's on the ground. Yet Mo's really there to find his sister-in-law, who disappeared when the Taliban took over. Even if grizzled everyman Tom, gun in hand against a setting Middle Eastern sun, is on the poster, it's Mo that's really the hero of Kandahar – if there is such a thing.

That's the hallmark of director Ric Roman Waugh, a filmmaker that takes generic action concepts and uses them to sneak in discussions of vital issues, such as in Snitch (come for the Rock, stay for the debate about minimum mandatory sentencing). He even turned the absurd Fallen franchise into an analysis of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) and PTSD for Angel Has Fallen (the first of his collaborations with Butler). He has described Kandahar as his Sicario, a multifaceted and clear-eyed look at a seemingly intractable tragedy: But it's closer to a geopolitical version of Shot Caller, his story of a businessman who ends up as a neo-Nazi prison gang boss. Both find ways to explain a hellish descent as a series of personal tragedies and moral lapses. Take the opening operation – the destruction of an Iranian nuclear facility by American operatives. It's shot like a Mission: Impossible set-piece, with the requisite round of applause in the remote operations center when a city is suddenly vaporized from beneath the soil. Yet David Buckley's minor key score undercuts that sense of victory: This is not the end, it says, just the next justification for retribution. There's no ebullience in Waugh's astoundingly executed violence, just gruesome, sometimes arbitrary death.

This is the bleakest view of spy craft, and a vision of Afghanistan as a Gordian knot that was tightly wound before Islam arrived. As written by former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst Mitchell LaFortune, and based in part on the real outing of a field agent and his local translator, Kandahar is undoubtedly informed by bitter experience of the on-the-ground reality: It's a pointed rejection of the idea of the Pax Americana, and of the very idea that what happened to and is happening in Afghanistan can wholly and solely be attributed to the USA's actions and sins of omission. The only trace of the occupation is a plethora of abandoned luxury SUVs (as one fighter notes, it's been so long since the U.S. departed that all the ammo they left has long been fired). Instead, there's a welter of acronyms – ISI, ISIS, VAJA, INA – as responsible for what's happening in Afghanistan as the CIA and Department of Defense ever were.

LaFortune presents an undeniably Western perspective on modern Islam's existential crisis between traditionalists, modernizers, progressives, and radical reactionaries, a crisis played out across the region and crystallized in clashes between stylish Pakistani superspy Kahil (Fazal) and his bosses: They call him Westernized, whereas he sees himself as merely modern. Everyone is a true believer, even if their beliefs can never mesh. "They will never stop fighting," as fixer Roman (Fimmel) tells Tom, and there's an underlying theme of war junkiedom that connects Kandahar to Waugh's 2015 documentary, That Which I Love Destroys Me.

And while Kandahar is undoubtedly spectacular war cinema, it's also a weighty meditation on the seeming impossibility for some of walking away from conflict. Waugh may blow up half the desert, but never is Kandahar more tense than in a showdown between Mo and Tajik warlord Ismail Rabbani (Haratian) – a duel of words and emotions, not blades. Even as the world burns behind them, it all comes back to one decision: to pick up or drop the gun.

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Kandahar, Ric Roman Waugh, Gerard Butler, Navid Negahban, Ali Fazal, Travis Fimmel, Elnaaz Norouzi, Ray Haratian

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