Producers: Basil Iwanyk, Eric Lee, Brendan Boyea, Gerard Butler, Alan Siegel, Scott Lastaiti, Christian Mercuri and Ali Jaafar   Director: Ric Roman Waugh   Screenplay: Mitchell LaFortune   Cast: Gerard Butler, Navid Negahban, Ali Fazal, Bahador Foladi, Travis Fimmel, Nina Toussaint-White, Vassilis Koukalani, Mark Arnold, Corey Johnson, Ravi Aujla, Ray Haratian and Tom Rhys Harries   Distributor: Open Road Films

Grade: C-

The action movies that Gerard Butler and director Ric Roman Waugh have previously collaborated on—“Angel Has Fallen” and “Greenland”—were bombastic, effects-heavy productions.  With “Kandahar” they go a more basic route, offering a rather simple-minded chase movie through the deserts of Iran and Afghanistan (Saudi Arabia standing in for both), with some gun battles and explosions but nothing more visually exotic than that along the way.  It amounts to a convoluted but tedious tale of espionage and escape that almost seems like a throwaway despite an effort to add some sympathetic notes about the damage the American involvement in Afghanistan did to many of the locals.

The rather incredible premise with which the movie begins is that the Iranian government has hired a western firm to upgrade an underground internet connection near the city of Qom.  That’s allowed the CIA to insert Tom Harris (Butler), on loan from MI6 as part of the two-man tech team (the other member, Oliver, is played by Tom Rhys Harries).  Harris places a device into the wiring that somehow causes the implosion of a huge underground Iranian nuclear research facility nearby as agency bigwigs Mark Lowe and Chris Hoyt (Mark Arnold and Corey Johnson) watch nervously but gleefully via satellite surveillance.  (Scripter Mitchell LaFortune has a cameo as a tech guy in the “war room” sequence.  His face is obscured in shadow, which, given the quality of the finished product, could be fortuitous.)

The plan is for Harris (and presumably Oliver, though he’s removed from the equation early on) to escape after the blast to Herat, in Afghanistan, to be met there by Mohammad Doud (Navid Negahban), an interpreter who worked with the Americans during the war but escaped to the U.S. He’s been brought back into the country to serve as translator on a four-hundred mile journey to Kandahar.  There Roman Chalmers (Travis Fimmel), not only Tom’s contact man with the CIA but a friend and colleague, has arranged for them to be extracted and flown to safety.  It seems an unnecessarily complicated business to begin with, but it’s blown almost immediately when investigative reporter Luna Cujai (Nina Toussaint-White), who knows of the operation, is kidnapped by Iranian agents, interrogated by Bashar Hamadani (Vassilis Koukalani) and, under threat of execution, spills the beans.  Hamadani immediately dispatches agent Fazard Asardi (Bahador Foladi), and though Oliver is killed, Harris evades the Iranians, meets up with Doud, and the chase is on. 

But that’s only one part of the pursuit.  The matter is also of interest to the infamous Pakistani intelligence service the ISI, which sends dashing operative Nahil Nazir (Ali Fazal), their worldly contact man with the Taliban, after Harris.  He prefers a motorcycle, while Fazard uses a helicopter, so Harris is in peril from both land and air.

And that hasn’t yet taken into account the Taliban, who are of course themselves thick on the ground, and warlords like Ismail Rabbani (Ray Haratian), into whose hands Harris and Doud fall during one leg of their journey. Rabbani and Harris have a frenemy-type past, and so the sojourn is at best tricky, but it’s made more so by the fact that Doud blames the warlord for the death of his son, which allows for a sequence in which the interpreter must decide between revenge and forgiveness.  (A further attempt to give Doud backstory comes in his revelation that the major reason he agreed to the assignment was his hope of finding and rescuing his sister-in-law, who was left behind during the American withdrawal.)

You have to give “Kandahar” some credit for trying to make Mohammad an emotionally complex figure, torn between anger over his losses and a desire to turn the page—a complexity Negahban conveys well–and for suggesting the less-than-monolithic attitudes at work in the region (Fazard is less interested in the geopolitical issues than getting home to his family, and Nahil remonstrates with rigid Taliban leaders about their brutal practices at a time when the world is watching).  Unhappily the same nuance isn’t bestowed on Harris, who shows some concern for putting Doud in danger and regret over Oliver’s death but is mostly just the bluff, gruff figure we’ve come to expect from Butler (when asked by his wife how he can keep putting himself at such risk when their daughter needs him, Harris curtly replies that she knows he could never stand a desk job).  Nor do any of the other characters come off as much more than rote.

Most damagingly, despite the efforts of Waugh and the technical crew—production designer Vincent Reynaud, cinematographer MacGregor and editor Colby Parker Jr.—“Kandahar” never builds up the excitement it’s straining for, even with a driving score by David Buckley.  The action is too episodic, and the jumps from place to place and pursuer to pursuer dilute the impact.  When the big finale occurs—it will come as no surprise that it includes a last-minute intervention from outside (and an act of predictable self-sacrifice)—it comes across as ludicrous rather than satisfying.

It also doesn’t help that the film comes close on the heels of a better film with a similar plot. “The Covenant.”  Guy Ritchie’s film also dealt with a bond between an American and an Afghan translator, and while it has some flaws, it brought greater depth to the premise than Waugh manages.  The comparison might not be fair, but in this case it’s inevitable. “Kandahar” gets some points for ambition.  But they’re not enough to keep it from being just another mediocre Gerard Butler action movie.