- Mission Kandahar
- Directed by Ric Roman Waugh
- Written by Mitchell LaFortune
- Starring Gerard Butler, Navid Negahban and Travis Fimmel
- Classification 14A; 100 minutes
- Opens in theatres May 26
By law, every summer movie season should include at least one Gerard Butler film.
You know the kind of specific weekday matinee delights: slightly trashy, slightly stupid, heavily testosterone-fuelled thrillers in which the Scottish actor is almost exclusively cast as a grizzled hero fighting his way out of impossibly dangerous situations in order to reunite with his loving daughter, or perhaps anxious wife (or a soon-to-be-ex-wife who eventually comes to her senses). That is, almost beat for beat, the plot of three recent Butler films (Plane, Last Seen Alive, Greenland) and is now the focus of his latest, Mission Kandahar. But to mangle a cliché – like Butler himself might mangle some poor bad guy’s throat – if it ain’t bloke, don’t fix it.
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Reteaming with director Ric Roman Waugh – the Martin Scorsese to Butler’s De Niro, having now collaborated with the actor on three films – our lead lunk stars in Mission Kandahar as Tom, an MI6 operative on loan to the CIA (check mark No. 1) who has just pulled off a successful bit of espionage in Tehran. While eager to get back home to a teenage daughter who wants him to attend her high-school graduation (check mark No. 2) and a wife who wants him to sign their divorce papers (check mark No. 3), Tom is coaxed into taking one last job (check mark No. 4) along the Iran-Afghanistan border.
Naturally, the dangerous mission quickly goes sideways (check mark No. 5), and Tom must now make his way to a British military base in Kandahar before he’s hunted down by a motley collection of enemies, including ISIS, the Taliban, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and one particularly slick operative from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency. It is basically Butler versus a United Nations’ worth of bad hombres, though the villains here are given just a shade more depth than the usual foreign caricatures that the star must fend off.
The other slight twist here, in terms of Cinema du Butler, is that this time the actor is essentially starring in a two-hander. Tom is saving his own skin, but he is also teaming up with the world-weary Mohammed (Navid Negahban), his Afghan translator who was recruited for the border job under false pretenses. Practically, this means that we get to watch not only one middle-aged badass but two, as Mohammed proves to be just as adept and tenacious a survivor as Tom, despite his lack of black-ops training. And when they’re not escaping helicopter attacks or being tortured by Afghan warlords, Tom and Mohammed get to build a uniquely father-to-father bond over their parenting missteps. A little bit of “aw” before the shock and awe.
I realize this all sounds rather brick-headed dumb, geopolitics viewed through the lens of a throat-punch, but the production is emboldened by a shared vision between its writer and director: they know they’re making something low-tier, but they refuse to play the lazy game, and give the film everything they got. The dialogue is to the point without being eye-rolling, the action is meaty and mostly CGI-free (the highlight is a night-vision firefight) and the performances are committed, even touching.
Butler is as sturdy as ever – and thankfully once again granted permission to use his real Scottish accent – while Negahban is afforded a handful of grace notes as a family man pulled into a fight he never dreamed of entering. Even a throwaway character like Tom’s CIA boss is given extra layers by Travis Fimmel, star of television’s Vikings, who makes a strong impression in just a few simple exposition-heavy scenes. Heck, I’ll even give points to long-time hey-it’s-that-guy Corey Johnson for playing a D.C. honcho tasked with saying lines like, “I like this guy, he’s good!” while watching the action unfold via drone camera footage.
Mission Kandahar (which is simply titled Kandahar by its U.S. distributor) is not going to surprise or enthrall audiences. But it does deliver on the many B-movie promises that its star has now built his throat-slitting career on. The movies need Gerard Butler like popcorn needs a layer of artificial butter. It’s not good for us, but we don’t – and shouldn’t – care.