Mission Kandahar: Fighting a War While Looking for Peace

In general, you don’t want to mess with Gerard Butler.

Known for such films as the …Has Fallen trilogy and Geostorm, much of Butler’s recent work has relied heavily on non-stop, over-the-top action scenes designed to get the blood pumping. While the films aren’t always highly dramatic, they’re usually good for a fun story about the ‘everyman vs. the world’. But, with Mission Kandahar, Butler takes a step into a more serious look at violence and takes the viewer on a (mostly) different type of journey.

In Mission Kandahar, undercover CIA operative Tom Harris (Butler) is on an assignment in Afghanistan when his cover is blown. However, he’s told that the only extraction point is a British base just outside of Kandahar. So, as the clock ticking, Harris and his translator Mohommad (Navid Negahban) embark on a harrowing journey into the violence of the desert. At the same time, led by a mercenary named Kahil (Ali Fazal), forces have conspired to kill the men before they can find safety.

Directed by Ric Roman Waugh, Mission Kandahar is another piece to the ever-growing canon of Gérard Butler action-fest stories. Having worked with Butler for his last three films, Waugh seems to be gaining insight into how to make the best use of his new muse. Usually that entails throwing the muscular, broken hero into scenarios that require over-the-top action. However, in Kandahar, Waugh takes on an entirely different approach by leaning into the more serious drama between explosions and gunfire. 

But don’t get me wrong. 

Kandahar still has plenty of the ‘boom boom pow’ that has become standard in Butler’s growing IMDb profile. Somewhat surprisingly though, action scenes operate on a slow build, featuring action scenes that grow in size as the film progresses. Instead of a mere visual spectacle, this is meant to be a harrowing journey through the desert with spies lurking around every corner and everyone else a perceived threat. In this way, Waugh draws the audience in with compelling tension yet still manages to offer the pay off that one might expect from a Butler film. Even so, unlike other recent Butler films, Kandahar wants to talk a bit more about the nature of that violence, as opposed to simply reveling in it. 

Somewhat ironically though, it’s this conversation that almost works against the film. Kandahar very much wants to speak about the frailties of war yet, at the same time, it  wants to justify it as well. As such, there’s a bit of a mixed message that comes across throughout the film, keeping it from becoming something truly special. 

Having said this, what does make Kandahar such an interesting film or its side characters, especially that of Kahil and Mohammad. Through the eyes of these characters, we see a picture of the Middle East that both yearns for peace and modern thinking yet also understands the flaws of Western ideals. For example, as he meets with Taliban members, Kahil speaks of the need to modernize their way of thinking. Yearning for change, he challenges the indoctrinated to read the Qu’ran for themselves in order to truly understand it. Similarly, Mohammed is also a man of peace. Now living with his family in the US, he recognizes the dangers within his home country and aches for it to heal. However, he seems to understand that his responsibility to others lies only within himself. For both Kahil and Mohammad take spiritual responsibility for themselves, yet remain trapped in a system that requires them to live counter to their beliefs. 

In this way, Kandahar becomes a fascinating exploration of the tensions of the Middle East and the nature of violence. On the one hand, the Taliban, Isis and other warring factions are shown to be the very same villains that we have seen portrayed onscreen countless times over the years. However, at the same time, Kandahar points its finger at the West, portraying it as a nation that has become war-hungry themselves and are also contributing to the problem. (At one point, Butler’s character even apologizes for the actions of the US.) By taking this approach, Kandahar seems to want to challenge the very nature of violence and war itself, arguing that the violence that incurs is counter to the peaceful nature of Islam in the community. (Though, despite these arguments, Kandahar as a film can’t seem get away from its passion for action. Here, ‘just war’ remains justified. Although everyone wishes for a better way, few people seem to know what that actually entails.)

Admittedly, it’s these conflicted messages that keep Mission Kandahar from really becoming elevated to the next level. However, one also can’t deny that the film remains a lot of fun. As a result, there’s enough here to entertain on this Mission, provided you choose to accept it.

Mission Kandahar is available in theatres on Friday, May 26th, 2023

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