Gerard Butler is an actor who knows his strengths and takes roles that play to them, and his charismatic lead performance is one of the best things about “Kandahar,” a military action thriller about undercover CIA operative Tom (Gerard Butler) who is stuck deep in hostile territory in Afghanistan with his translator, Mo (Navid Negahban). It’s vaguely familiar to this year’s “The Covenant” from Guy Ritchie, yet the two films are very different. Here, the two men must work together to avoid the elite special forces unit that has been tasked with hunting them down after their mission is exposed.

The plot is very by-the-book and simple, but Mitchell LaFortune’s script features thoughtful writing with a politically-minded slant. There’s a lot of conversational drama that feels draggy in parts (and a lot of it is offset by massive explosions and flashy shootouts), but the screenplay is not mindless. It’s exhausting to keep track of the roster of characters and factions and how they are working with or against each other, but the focus on the narrative is the relationship between Mo and Tom and their will to survive. Their friendship is crucial to the story, but you must suspend disbelief because there’s no way these two would develop such a close bond in such a short amount of time.

The film is well cast and features solid performances from all involved, which in turn helps create a stronger emotional bond between the audience and the characters. The stakes are high and the danger feels real, which makes every shootout affecting and tense. You’ll genuinely root for these guys to make it out alive, but getting to their final extraction point quickly becomes a dicey proposition.

Director Ric Roman Waugh, who worked with Butler on “Angel Has Fallen” and “Greenland” is perfectly acceptable behind the camera, but the too-dark cinematography and annoying overuse of shaky handheld cameras are both extremely aggravating as a viewer. The monotonous chase – shoot – repeat formula grows tiresome very quickly.

Despite its somewhat predictable story, “Kandahar” tries to tackle some sophisticated commentary about the cycle of violence and war in the Middle East. This makes it a decent (if forgettable) movie where the action scenes come with a dose of emotional weight, and not just explosions for the sake of empty entertainment.

By: Louisa Moore

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