Covert missions, secret agents, exotic locations, and a race against time have been the building blocks of the spy thriller genre. The allure of the characters in the movies of this genre revolves around our own fantasies about the lives of the intelligence operatives. Exciting but deadly assignments fuel our own imaginations about the adrenaline that would have filled our bodies if we were in one of those situations. The new movie Kandahar, starring 300 star Gerard Butler and directed by Ric Roman Waugh, fulfills all the tropes of the action thriller genre but tones down on the testosterone-fueled hyper-masculine duels and instead weaves gritty characters, most of whom just want to get home alive. He doesn’t try to subvert the genre altogether but surely adds more geopolitical nuance through the more human characters.
Kandahar follows a CIA intelligence officer, Tom Harris who is on a covert mission to destroy Iran’s nuclear base. He succeeds and is handed a minor assignment in Afghanistan, but when his cover gets blown, he is hounded by operatives from Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan to be caught and sold to the highest bidder. The only hope for him not to get killed and see his family again is to reach the nearest allied base in Kandahar, which can fly him out of the country. Let’s deep-dive into the characters:
Gerard Butler As Tom Harris
A consummate professional and a cool customer, Tom Harris’s forte for a long time has been risking his life doing covert operations for the CIA. He was part of the MI6 force before working for the CIA, but now the jadedness of it all has started to show on his face. He has a teenage daughter from a marriage that has dissolved over the years and gotten to the point of divorce. He wants to go back, and he promises his wife that his stint in Iran is over and he will most likely return to meet his daughter. He was being truthful. The mission to sabotage Iran’s nuclear production was successful, as he had managed to install the necessary device for the CIA to hack into the system and blow up the underground base, which was almost ready to produce the nuclear weapon.
The only thing standing in the way of his return was his refusal to say no to a new assignment. He was so focused and alert while looking on the outside for threats that he had grown opaque to this tendency in his character. He could be manipulated into taking the next job, which is exactly what another operative does. Roman, a secret agent based in Dubai, lures Tom going to Afghanistan to gather information regarding a covert airstrip to be built on the border of Afghanistan and Iran. Apart from being aware of this flaw (which nearly turns fatal), he knew what he was doing.
Tom knew that he could die at any time, and he also knew that betrayal could be right around the corner. Everyone looks out for themselves in the espionage business, and such scenarios mean that he can easily be left behind to die, and he would have to die without any regrets for trusting someone blindly. Even after knowing this reality, he had not become like one of those ultra-selfish operatives. Back in the day, he was assigned an operator who helped him, and he even tried to get him out to a safer location, but he couldn’t. The operator later died a violent death at the hands of ISIS. The loss weighed heavy on his heart, and he refused to bury it under the persona of a hard-boiled agent.
In Afghanistan, he is assigned a translator by Roman, a middle-aged man by the name of Mohammad. From a completely utilitarian perspective, Mohammad would have been viewed by another operative as just another Afghani man colluding with foreign agents, but this was not Tom’s attitude towards him. He listened to his problems and sympathized with him during his moments of vulnerability, and he never thought of leaving him behind, even if it meant risking his own life. When Mohammad confronts a Afghani warlord Ismael Rabbani for his sins, Tom listens and sticks to Mohammad’s side of the story, even though Ismael was probably his last hope of reaching Kandahar. Later, he gets caught by the Taliban because Ismael gives away his location, but this doesn’t make him harbor resentment against Mohammad for confronting Ismael or being impractical.
In the end, his trusting attitude pays off, and he gets help from Roman while being held hostage by the Taliban. When Roman fails in getting him into the base in Kandahar, help comes directly from the CIA headquarters and blasts the Talibani units that were coming to block the gates of the CIA base. Tom saves Mohammad and finally gets to meet his daughter Ida, and even though he doesn’t quite have the right lingo to address her, he is delighted to have made it back alive, keeping his promise.
Navid Negahban As Mohammad’ Mo’ Doud
Mohammad came in as just a translator but got entangled in the power play between different countries who were hounding Tom for leverage. His heart bled for his homeland, Afghanistan, which he had left years ago. His tragic past was overcome only by a god-fearing heart, and he gradually became a symbol of a truly religious man. He once had a family in Afghanistan but had to relocate because of the Taliban. He works for Roman and is sent in to help Tom understand the local language. He is kind and patient, even though his life has been nothing short of a series of tragedies that would make any other man bitter and unforgiving. His son died due to the weapons provided to the Taliban by the warlord Ismael. He could have avenged his son’s death by shooting Ismael when he had the chance, but he showed his true character by leaving justice to God and forgiving Ismael. His non-violent act curbed the chain of revenge.
Living abroad, he has not forgotten his roots. He understands the pain of his fellow Afghans. He comes to Afghanistan thinking he will help locate his wife’s sister, who has gone missing but sadly, he doesn’t get the chance. He is promised by Tom that he, too, would help him in his cause. He advises Tom to return to his family, for he never knows when he could die or get changed so much by the violence that he wouldn’t even recognize love, even if it came and stood right in front of him. With such a giving, patient, and understanding heart, Mohammad becomes the soul of the film and reminds us of all those good people who suffer the most during wars and just end up being a statistic in modern warfare. Mohammad lived to fight another day, reuniting with his family in Baltimore, America.
Travis Fimmel As Roman Chalmers
Embodying the spirit of the lone wolf, Roman Chalmers, who works individually stationed in Dubai, hands out the Afghan assignment to Tom, and it looks as if he just cares about the intel and the agents are just expendable pawns in the great game of modern geopolitics. He doesn’t hesitate to tap Tom’s phone and listen in on the family dynamic. He actually uses the fact that Tom’s daughter is gearing up for college to lure him into taking the job. He is smart enough, though, to hire somebody like Tom, who was a true patriot and not just after a wad of cash. His attitude gives off the impression that he will let Mohammad and Tom die in captivity once they get caught by the Taliban, but appearances are deceptive, as they say.
In the end, the most visceral sacrifice is made by Roman himself when he jumps off a moving car and tries to take down Nazir, a Pakistani agent, all in order to save Mohammad and Tom. He is a man who can come in handy at any time because he has a vast network of operatives spread out in the most war-torn areas of the world. He even finds an outfit of Afghan commandos to attack the Talibani base in the guise of an ISIS unit to rescue Tom and Mohammad, who were being held hostage by the Taliban. Such a vast network and ingenuity of implementation displayed Roman’s prowess as an agent. He died, but not before proving he had not lost the human heart, which cared about his fellow men.
Ali Fazal As Kahil Nazir
The coolest character in the entire film was perhaps that of Kahil Nazir, a Pakistani agent who is given the task of apprehending Tom for his superior, who sat nicely in Pakistan while he risked his life in the deserts of Afghanistan. All he yearns for are a few holidays. Even though he is out on national duty to take care of Pakistani interests in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, he doesn’t forget to enjoy life. Once he gets the job of catching Tom, he puts on his bulletproof vest under the black jacket and proceeds to upset the pursuit of his Iranian competitors, who were out to capture Tom themselves.
Nazir’s thinking is quite complex. He sees a boy working for the Taliban in the desert, and his heart fills with pity for the boy, for he sees that he has been brainwashed and misguided. Can he see his own ways, though? He doesn’t hesitate to plant a bomb on the Iranian cohort’s car and detonate it, killing so many people. Maybe he had decided that this was to be his last assignment, which is why he demanded to be relocated once he caught Tom and handed him over.
Nazir is more intelligent than he is dapper. This fact is on display when he deduces Roman’s plan to disguise Afghani commandos as ISIS. He was always one step ahead of his Iranian competitors. If it weren’t for the CIA’s orders to blast the units coming to block the gates of the Kandahar base, he would have almost managed to make sure Tom didn’t escape, but ultimately Tom managed to come on top, shooting Nazir and wounding him badly. It seems that the deserts of Afghanistan were not done with him, and it would take some time before he would be allowed to chill in Paris or London, impressing women with his biking skills.
Apart from these ones, there were several other characters in Kandahar that made the film entertaining and engaging, unlike other action movies where the sequences are so prolonged and jarring that they become an assault on the senses. The performances are to be praised as they lift this spy action film into a human drama about the collateral damages of modern warfare.