If you want to see a good movie about a warrior stranded in hostile territory in Afghanistan who’s trying to get himself and his Afghan interpreter to safety in Kandahar without getting killed, I’d recommend “Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant,” now available on Apple TV Plus, Google Play, Prime Video, YouTube and other platforms. A departure for the director of such violent, gleefully vulgar action-comedies as “Snatch” and “The Gentlemen,” Ritchie’s latest film, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Dar Salim, is a moving testament to our obligation to the Afghan civilians who helped the U.S. military while we were there, many of whom were left behind only to go into hiding or be killed.
If, however, you’re willing to settle for a by-the-book action-adventure with almost the exact same plot, brought to you by the star and director of the dumb thrillers “Angel Has Fallen” and “Greenland,” well, ladies and gentlemen, I give you “Kandahar,” starring Gerard Butler and directed by Ric Roman Waugh.
Butler plays MI-6 agent Tom Harris, on loan to the CIA as the film opens and working undercover as a repairman for a Swiss telecom company (while actually sabotaging an Iranian nuclear power plant). When his handler (Travis Fimmel) convinces Tom to take a second job that entails him operating out of Herat, just over the boarder from Iran in Afghanistan, his cover is blown when a journalist (Nina Toussaint-White) — careless about intel she has been given by a Pentagon whistleblower — identifies Tom’s company to an Iranian intelligence officer (Bahador Foladi).
In short order, Tom and his interpreter Mo (Navid Negahban) are in a race against time to catch a U.S. flight out of the country from an unused CIA base in Kandahar, 400 miles away, while evading murderous thugs from the Taliban, an officer with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency (Ali Fazal) and even a treacherous leader of a Tajik militia group (Ray Haratian), who is only too happy to sell out his old friend Tom when the opportunity presents itself.
The proceedings, while capably staged and with an only moderately interesting subtext about the ageless inevitability of tribal war in that part of the world, are loud and violent. So, to some extent, was “Covenant.” But the new film has none of the earlier film’s emotional resonance. (Ritchie took his sweet time setting up why we should care about Salim’s Ahmed. The whole point of “Covenant” is about honoring commitments.)
“Kandahar,” on the other hand, just wants to get Tom and Mo home, to London and Baltimore, where Tom lives and Mo has relocated, respectively. While the action transpires in Afghanistan, we sometimes watch it over the shoulder of a heartless CIA bureaucrat at Langley named Lowe (Mark Arnold), on a Jumbotron that somehow is playing live drone footage of the whole perilous operation. At one point, Lowe says of Tom, “I like this guy. He is good.” Got it.
“Kandahar” is very much a box-ticking exercise, with Butler playing the same kind of hero — perhaps literally the same guy — he has built a career out of. Somehow, the movie “Plane” from earlier this year, a thriller in which Butler finds his jet pilot character trapped with an escaped murderer (Mike Colter) on a jungle island crawling with Filipino separatists, managed to actually satisfy a certain primal urge, the cinematic equivalent of junk food.
Based on its merits alone, “Kandahar” isn’t that much worse than “Plane.” It’s only when you hold it up against “The Covenant” that it feels not just like a letdown, but a betrayal.
R. Area theaters. Contains violence and strong language. 120 minutes.