Following hot on the heels of Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant, which tells of the heroic efforts made by US troops to secure the safety of their Afghan interpreters, Gerry Butler steps into the mix with a new war epic on his G-Base imprint. Yes, Kandahar is also about a Western black-ops soldier who goes above and beyond the call of duty to help his Afghan translator; as previously noted, the action of these films has been superseded by the hapless surrender of the Trump/Biden regimes and the grim reality of Afghan people hung out to dry. This one comes from a spec script written by military intelligence officer Mitchell LaFortune way back in 2016, and so much has changed since then that Kandahar’s in country adventures, like The Covenant, bypassed UK cinemas and gets dumped with zero fanfare of the benighted council telly of Amazon Prime.
The relationship between a mercenary and a translator feels like a rich one to develop; both are making their crust from war, but with different levels of responsibility. This one hinges on the interplay between Tom Harris (Butler) and Mohammad ‘Mo’ Doud, plated by Navid Negahbhan, but we don’t get to that for a good forty minutes of familiar espionage plotting. We start by peering through high-tech graticules with Harris under-cover in Iran, organising the sabotage of a nuclear reactor; ‘even their chimneys are hidden’ is the admiring line fed back to the CIA in Langley, but Harris moves on with a pithy ‘We’re not hanging from a crane yet.’ Motivated, cringe, cringe, with a desire to return home to see his daughter’s graduation, presumably because he’s also saved enough to pay for his poor’s mother’s potentially life-changing eye operation, Harris is a black ops man motivated by whiter-than-white intentions; ‘I like this guy, he is good!’ his US handlers cream their jeans as they watch his daring escapes by satellite. Harris heads to Dubai, then Afghanistan, where he finds his cover abruptly blown and he frantically tries to organise an extraction for himself and his interpreter Mo.
The scenes of Harris and Mo struggling for unity are the strongest suit of Ric Roman Waugh’s film; ’This is my life in your hands,’ says Mo, before an emergency tyre change causes him to pivot to a accusatory ‘You used me as bait.’ Like The Covenant, Kandahar almost lands a killer blow in terms of capturing what made the hurried pull-out from Afghanistan such a moral and physical disaster; unfortunately, the film was shot in Saudi Arabia and takes advantage of in-kind funding from the Saudi Film Commission, so it’s got as much moral and geopolitical credibility as a meet-and-greet for a PGA/LIV golf tournament named after Jamal Ahmad Khashoggi. Yet compared to the comic –book racism of the ‘Olympus/London/Angel Has Fallen’ sequence, which Kandahar is apparently marketed as part of in some territories, this is a far superior beast, surprisingly sensitive to Mo’s journey back to his wife’s sister, the loss of his son, and a tart scene where a warlord warns of ‘the dangers of stamping out ideology’ to be countered my Mo’s succinct plea’ “I just want to go home.’
‘You have to return home to know what you are fighting for,’ is the thoughtful take-away here, but at least it’s an improvement on London Has Fallen’s considered message ‘Go back to F*ckheadistan!’ Kandahar seems to be trying to update such attitudes, but corny details like the motor-bike and mortar-team villains drag Kandahar down to Delta Force levels. Add in Amazon’s typical CGAF attitude to the shoddy presentation of their products, with all subtitles totally out of sync with the action, and Kandahar looks like the wreckage of a much better project; a more-than-watchable star-vehicle, but falling way short of what a gallus unit like Butler should be able to bring to the fray.