Film Critic

Chuck Koplinski is The News-Gazette's film critic. His email is and you can follow him on Twitter (@ckoplinski).

Though it’s being promoted as a standard Gerard Butler actioner, there’s far more at play in Ric Roman Waugh’s “Kandahar.”

Working from a script by former Defense Intelligence Agency officer Mitchell LaFortune, it strives to present the current unrest in the Middle East from a variety of perspectives. It’s a noble effort, but the complexities it attempts to explain prove too much for a two-hour feature, and as a result, we’re left with far too many questions regarding the intentions of its characters and their goals. It also proves too cumbersome, the story getting bogged down by the weight of its intentions, slowly progressing from one ponderous scene to the next.

Tom Harris (Butler) is a veteran CIA agent on the verge of burnout. Having just taken out a nuclear reactor in Iran, he’s in need of some downtime, eager to get home for his daughter’s high school graduation. However, this is not to be, as Harris’ contact approaches him with a new mission of the highest urgency. This, and a payday large enough to put his daughter through medical school, are enough to convince him to go to the title city in Afghanistan. He’s paired with a translator, Mo (Navid Negahban), who has his own reasons for going: his son was killed by the Taliban, and he hopes to find his sister-in-law and help her escape.

The mission is the film’s MacGuffin and is soon thrown to the wayside. Not long after setting down in enemy territory, a leak out of the Pentagon exposes Harris’ identity and assignment. What ensues is a desperate attempt to reach an extraction point 400 miles away, these two strange bedfellows forced to depend on one another for survival.

It takes 45 minutes for us to get to this point, too much time spent delving into the motivations of the various government agencies, militant factions and other separatist groups in the region. And while I appreciate the lengths LaFortune goes to in order to make “Kandahar” into more than simply another genre effort, the script gets bogged down with murky explanations of the myriad players’ motivations.

The languid pace Waugh adapts is the killing blow. While there is a great deal of exposition in LaFortune’s script, other plot-heavy movies — “Syriana” comes to mind — have been able to tell multi-layered stories with far more expediency. More damning is the fact that once the plotlines have been laid out, some are abandoned, not developed to their full potential.

Even the action scenes fail to reach their potential. The gun battles are executed in a rote manner, little in the way of imaginative choreography at play, many of them coming off as time-fillers. A car chase in a crowded plaza starts promisingly but peters out, while the major set piece, a nighttime chase involving an SUV and a helicopter in stealth mode, suffers from obvious budget constraints.

I’d be hard-pressed to remember a film that fell so short of its potential. Most of what comes out of today’s Hollywood are bloated, overblown examples of budgetary excess and directorial hubris. If Waugh had had a fraction of the money allocated for a standard A-list feature, “Kandahar” might have been a miniseries, where its ambitious storyline could have been fully realized. As it is, this plays like a truncated version of a grand vision that exceeds Waugh and LaFortune’s grasp.


★★ Cast: Gerard Butler, Navid Negahban, Ali Fazel, Bahador Foladi, Olivia-Mai Barrett, Vassilis Koukalani and Hakeem Jomah and Nina Toussaint-White. Directed by Ric Roman Waugh; produced by Brendon Boyea, Basil Iwanyk and Butler; screenplay by Mitchell Fortune. An Open Road Films release. 120 minutes. Rated R (violence and language). At AMC Champaign 13 and Savoy 16 IMAX.

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