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I’m all for a juicy, action-packed Gerard Butler movie. A Gerard Butler movie that wants to have its geopolitics taken seriously is a different matter. And honestly, it’s an even more different matter when the movie is not particularly juicy or, you know, action-packed.
In this picture, directed by Ric Roman Waugh (who guided Butler through 2019’s “Angel Has Fallen” and 2020’s “Greenland”), Butler plays Tom Harris, a CIA black ops agent we first see planting explosives to stymie Iran’s nuclear program. A commendable idea, the film thinks we would all agree. In a rooftop phone conversation a little later, we learn he’s estranged from the mother of his daughter—no kidding!—because he’s addicted to the job—of course! And also that he’s got a limited amount of time to get on a plane to England to attend his daughter’s graduation.
Butler’s character in this year’s far superior “Plane” had the same deadline challenge, only in that movie, the daughter was graduating college, whereas this daughter looks like she’s only graduating high school.
Well. This development certainly made me sit up and take notice. How many stale ingredients was this script by Mitchell LaFortune to serve up? Let me sort of count the ways. First off, surprise, Harris does not catch his plane to Gatwick. Second, he has to join forces with an Afghan translator, Mo (Navid Negahban), and, um, even though they are culturally Worlds Apart, they form a Strong Bond that sustains and changes Harris’ mind about certain things. Once whatever cover these two guys have has been blown, they’ve got to reach the title Afghan city in order to get back to where they ostensibly belong. It takes a whole 50 minutes of indifferent cloak and dagger before we get our first car chase.
Which is tracked by CIA overlords in a kind of war room where many of their moves are captured by drone cameras. When Harris pulls a fancy maneuver in a pickup truck, one of the observers says, “I like this guy, he’s good,” like a sports commentator or something.
In a pause in the action, such as it is, Mo gives Tom some advice about the importance of getting to his kith and kin: “You have to go home and hold them in your hearts before you forget what it feels like.” Do screenwriters think dialogue like this gets stronger the more you recycle it? At a Militia camp, Tom relaxes with a tribal leader of his acquaintance, who offers this pearl: “The harder you try to stamp out an ideology, the stronger it becomes.” No kidding. Mo recognizes this cat as a warlord who conducted a campaign of slaughter in which Mo’s own son was killed and calls him out. This leads to a standoff that doesn’t have, well, the juice that it aspires to. And it also emboldens Mo to face down Tom about how the misery in this region is because of interlopers like the U.S. Fair point—finally!—but at this late point in the movie, it smacks of lip service.
What’s left? More chases, one rendered in different shades of night vision to mostly obfuscating effect; some noble self-sacrifice from a supporting Special Forces guy, a buildup to a showdown with the enigmatic motorcycle rider who’s been pursuing Tom since that first car chase (Ali Fazal, maintaining his cool), and who wants out of the game as soon as he’s eliminated this target. In other words, all the usual suspects. And they all are kind of tired.
Now playing in theaters.
Gerard Butler as Tom Harris
Navid Negahban as Mo
Ali Fazal as Kahil
Bahador Foladi as Farzad Asadi
Olivia-Mai Barrett as Ida Harris
Rebecca Calder as Corrine Harris
Vassilis Koukalani as Bashar
Hakeem Jomah as Rasoul