a ragged Gerard Butler stands with binoculars in a yellowed village doorway
Credit: Hopper Stone, SMPSP / Open Road Films / Briarcliff Entertainment

On paper, Kandahar certainly sounds like a typical Gerard Butler action fest: a CIA agent stationed in Afghanistan is covertly working on an operation “bigger than Snowden and WikiLeaks combined,” but before he can follow through with it, his identity is exposed and he instantly ascends to the top of the Taliban’s most-wanted list. He and his interpreter have to attempt an escape through the harsh Afghan desert to get picked up and brought home, but the terrorists are close behind, and, well, you can imagine where this is going—there are helicopters, rocket launchers, night vision, the works. 

Yet while all of these Butlerisms do make their appearances, this isn’t his usual schtick. Instead the movie goes for gritty, The Hurt Locker-style docurealism, which in the right hands could be an exciting project for Butler to prove he’s got the dramatic chops to match his action ones. Director Ric Roman Waugh isn’t Kathryn Bigelow, though; he’s the man behind roid-rage Gerard vehicles Angel Has Fallen and Greenland, and behind the veneer of insistent self-seriousness, this isn’t much more sophisticated than either of those movies. It’s John Wayne in the Afghan desert, a bizarrely somber drama of a lonesome stranger trapped in a country depicted as monolithically barbaric. 

Waugh lingers on shots of white people hanged from construction cranes and gives the terrorists dialogue like, “You’ve slayed the American dragon,” and there’s one scene in which our heroes have to make a split-second decision whether or not to shoot an Afghan child holding explosives that I could swear was ripped verbatim from the aforementioned Kathryn Bigelow movie. Butler looks lost in the role, as if he’s so used to playing Rambo offshoots that he doesn’t know what to do with himself in a movie in which even the Humvee chases are pretty lethargic. 

If I’m going to watch this man retcon the war on terror to look heroic, it should at the very least be over-the-top enough to be entertaining. This is the kind of grim slog that was made and remade nonstop in the late aughts when dourness and a muddy orange color palette were synonymous with legitimacy in genre movies. If this is the future of Gerard Butler movies, I’m going to need to get a bumper sticker that reads, “I’d Rather Be Watching Plane (2023)!” R, 120 min.

Wide release in theaters