REVIEW: “Kandahar” (2023)

It had always been hard to know what to expect from a Gerard Butler movie. The very same guy who was so good in the crowdpleasing “300”, the unexpectedly great “Coriolanus”, and the captivating “The Vanishing” has also given us such misfires as “Playing for Keeps”, “Gods of Egypt”, and “Geostorm”. I genuinely like Butler and he’s an actor I root for. But for a long time it seemed like his stinkers were a lot more common than his good movies.

Yet in recent years Butler seems to have found a sweet spot. With last year’s “Last Seen Alive” being the lone exception, he has put out some quality genre entertainment with film’s like 2020’s “Greenland”, 2021’s “Cop Shop”, and especially “Plane” from earlier this year. Now you can add “Kandahar” to the list. This well made action thriller sees Butler re-teaming with director Ric Roman Waugh (the two last worked together on “Greenland”).

The story is written by Mitchell Lafortune, a former military intelligence officer who pulls from his own experiences of being deployed in Afghanistan. His script features a lot of moving parts and at times it can be hard keeping up with the various players, their alliances, and their allegiances. But Lafortune does a good job showing the region as a geopolitical powder keg. A place where ancient wars and modern interests clash in a number of violent and deadly ways. A place where peace almost seems like a pipe dream.

Image Courtesy of Open Road Films / Briarcliff Entertainment

Butler plays Tom Harris, a deep cover CIA operative who we first meet in Qom, Iran. He and his mission partner, Oliver (Tom Rhys Harries) are posing as technicians hired by the Iranian government to work on telephone lines for better internet service. In reality they’re secretly working with the Pentagon to sabotage a nearby nuclear weapons facility. It’s the latest move in a shadow war being carried out by the U.S. as a way to circumvent their public ‘no boots on the ground’ policy. The nuclear facility is soon destroyed and Tom preps to head home.

But rather than leaving, Tom is convinced by an embedded U.S. asset and friend named Roman (Travis Trimmel) to help with an “easy” three-day mission. Assisting Tom is an Afghan translator named Moe (Navid Negahban) who we learn has his own personal reasons for being in the region. But before they can even begin preparations everything falls apart.

An ambitious whisteblower working in Iran named Luna Cajai (Nina Toussaint-White) is desperate to blow the lid off the Pentagon’s covert operations in the Middle East. Following the nuclear site’s destruction she gets leaked intel exposing the U.S. involvement. In her rush to get her story to the airwaves, Luna gets sloppy. The Iranian government gets wind of her intel and take her into custody. Meanwhile the press recklessly runs with Luna’s story, blowing Tom and Moe’s cover.

Image Courtesy of Open Road Films / Briarcliff Entertainment

The bulk of the film’s runtime focuses on Tom and Moe’s race to reach their extraction point located at an old CIA base in Kandahar province. They have a limited time to get there and 400 miles to cover. But in between is territory crawling with Taliban forces and hostile warring militias. To make matters worse, Iranian intelligence agents led by Agent Farzad Asadi (Bahador Foladi) are hot on their trail. And Pakistan’s I.S.I. has hired a ruthless mercenary (Ali Fazal) to capture Tom first in hopes of selling him on the open market.

As you can tell there are a lot of pieces to put into place and we get plenty of table-setting in the first 30 minutes or so. As mentioned it’s not always easy to follow who’s with who, but the film always keeps your interest. Along the way Lafortune’s script attempts to reveal the humanity of the characters by showing glimpses of their family lives. It works better for some than it does others.

The majority of “Kandahar” was shot in Saudi Arabia which does a great job filling in for Afghanistan and Iraq. And while it isn’t the thrill-a-minute ride the trailer suggests, the action scenes we get are intense and exciting, especially in the riveting final third where things really ratchet up. As for Butler, he’s given a character who fits his strengths nicely – rugged and resolute yet sympathetic and even vulnerable at times. “Kandahar” let’s him convey each of those traits, all while offering a candid portrayal of a troubled part of the world and throwing in a little popcorn entertainment to boot. “Kandahar” opens in theaters this Friday.


REVIEW: “K.G.F: Chapter 2” (2022)

On the heels of the successful “K.G.F: Chapter 1” and following a rather lengthy COVID-19 delay, writer-director Prashanth Neel delivered the second chapter of his two-part action-fueled crime saga. The highly anticipated sequel is the most expense Kannada-language film ever made and currently stands as the highest grossing Kannada-language movie of all-time. After finally seeing it, I can understand why.

Not only does Chapter 2 have a bigger budget, but it also has a bigger scope. Everything about it feels larger and the stakes are most certainly higher. But most importantly, the second chapter sticks to the same wild, over-the-top blueprint – high on style, heavy on action, and still driven by the powerhouse presence of its charisma-oozing star, Yash. And while Neel runs into some of the same problems as he did with the first film, they’re not nearly as pronounced this time around. He tightens up the storytelling and he does a better job with some of his characters – two slight beefs I had with Chapter 1.

If you remember, the first film was built around a veteran reporter and author, Anand Ingalagi (Anant Nag) being interviewed by television journalist Deepa Hegde (Malavika Avinash). After having his book banned by the Indian government, Anand comes to the television station to share his story which the Prime Minister (Raveena Tandon) is determined to erase. Chapter 2 uses that same framing device but with a twist.

After suffering a sudden stroke, Anand lies in intensive care unable to finish his story. While at the hospital, Deepa meets Anand’s son Vijayendra (Prakash Taj) who tells them his father was obsessed with the story of the Kolar Gold Fields (K.G.F.) and the rise to power of a renowned assassin named Rocky (Yash). Despite their troubled family history, Vijayendra insists that the rest of his father’s story be told. So he takes Deepa and her crew to his father’s library where they begin piecing together the second half of Anand’s tale.

From there we shift to the story of Rocky who (after killing the ruthless Garuda in Chapter 1) has taken over as the new boss of the K.G.F. He now runs the most precious piece of land on earth, funneling gold through the black market and amassing enormous wealth. It’s all in keeping with a pledge he made to his ailing mother when he was a child. While on her deathbed, she makes Rocky pledge to one day become rich and powerful so that people would remember his name. It’s what drives his out-of-control hunger for more.

Despite having dirty hands, Rocky is loved by the miners and their families, winning their adoration by supplying them clothing and building them homes. While the adults praise his benevolence, the children herald him as a superhero. But there are forces on the outside who are unhappy with Rocky’s ascension. So he does what anyone would do in his situation – he builds an army to protect his empire.

Meanwhile, outside of the K.G.F. walls, the five crime bosses who hired Rocky in the first film now begin plotting against him. They don’t like than an outsider has disrupted their enterprise, and they’re not giving it up without a fight. At the same time, Rocky is branded “the biggest criminal in India” by the self-serving Prime Minister Ramika Sen who’s willing to use the full resources of the government to shut him down. But there’s a new player in the game; a violent wild card no one saw coming – Adheera (Sanjay Dutt), the brother of the ruthless kingpin Rocky killed in the first film.

As I’m sure you expect, all of these combustible elements lead to some insanely fun action sequences as Rocky defends his fortune from all sides. Yash’s unmatched (and often hilarious) bravado energizes the fight sequences and shootouts, and returning DP Bhuvan Gowda once again shoots him as a near mythological force of nature. It’s the same unique visual language from the first film, but with crisper editing and even more ambitious. That means we get action scenes that are bigger, crazier, and always stunning to look at. But not all the action involves fists, guns, or explosives. Yet even then, Rocky always seems to be one step ahead of his enemies.

One of my biggest gripes about the first film was its handling of Srinidhi Shetty’s character, Reena, Rocky’s alleged love interest. I say “alleged” because there was no warmth between them whatsoever. And Shetty was quickly pushed into the background and forgotten. She makes for a more interesting presence in Chapter 2 and has a pretty significant role to play in the second half. Reena still isn’t as fleshed out as I had hoped, but at least she finally feels like a part of the story.

“K.G.F: Chapter 2” embraces the best things from the first film while correcting some of its missteps. Together, the two films make for a delightfully cohesive pair. Neel uses our love for legend to tell his story the same way we often do when talking about our heroes – with as much imagination as certitude. This dance between myth and truth is a big part of makes these movies tick. Chapter 1 gave us a good taste of it. Chapter 2 took the concept and ran with it. “K.G.F: Chapter 2” is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.


REVIEW: “K.G.F. : Chapter 1” (2018)

After the Indian government bans his book detailing the troubling history of the Kolar Gold Fields and the powerful crime boss who took control of it, veteran reporter Anand Ingalagi (Anant Nag) sits down with skeptical television journalist Deepa Hegde (Malavika Avinash) to share a story the sitting Prime Minister has vowed to erase. Their interview serves as the framing device for “K.G.F: Chapter 1”, a time-spanning crime thriller from writer-director Prashanth Neel.

This first chapter of Neel’s ambitious two-parter sets itself deep within Indian gangland. It’s a film that’s high on style, heavy on action, and is carried by the powerhouse presence of its charismatic star, Yash. As far as the story, it’s both fascinating and frustrating. The structure is unique and audacious, building a complex world full of colorful characters, mob politics, and violence. At the same time, the non-linear hopscotch can be a challenge to follow, especially in the film’s attempt at covering a five-decade time period.

One thing you’ll immediately notice is Neel’s unique storytelling rhythm. There’s an almost feverish quality to his pacing and a near idolizing zeal in the way he speaks of his protagonist (which shows itself both narratively and visually). It gives the impression that the story is being told from someone’s heightened point-of-view. Much like the way that we excitedly embellish our own heroes and share their mythologies. It’s a rhythm that takes some getting used to, but once I did I was locked in.

Yash plays the intensely serious Rocky, an anti-hero who rose from poverty in Mumbai to become a renowned underworld assassin. As a bitter young boy, Rocky made a pledge to his ailing mother to become wealthy and powerful so that people would know his name. It’s a vow that will drive his character and the story through both films. Following her death, Rocky began working for an underboss in Bombay named Shetty (Dinesh Mangaluru). Over the years he would quickly rise in the ranks, and soon his notoriety equaled that of his boss.

Meanwhile Suryavardhan (Ramesh Indira), a powerful gold-smuggling crime boss who runs the Kolar Gold Fields (K.G.F.) is on his death bed. His greed-driven associates begin to worry about what will happen to their partnership once Suryavardhan’s ruthless son and heir Garuda (Ramachandra Raju) takes over the K.G.F. Intent on protecting their stakes in the operation, the associates call on Rocky, promising him full control of the Bombay underworld in exchange for killing Garuda. Rocky accepts, seeing this as another step in keeping his promise to his mother.

It’s here that we’re introduced to Reena (Srinidhi Shetty), an intriguing but underutilized supporting player who happens to be the spoiled fiance of one of Suryavardhan’s associates. I think we’re supposed to believe there’s a romantic tension between her and Rocky, but it’s a big ask. That’s because there’s never any convincing reason for us to. There’s no warmth, no relatable attraction, and certainly no romance. The movie throws them together for a couple of scenes and then Reena get tossed to the back-burner. It’s one of the movie’s biggest shortcomings.

The second half of the story sees Rocky infiltrating the K.G.F., posing as a miner in his effort to get close to Garuda. But once inside, he discovers that the miners are actually kidnapped slave laborers, forced to work under the brutal fist of Garuda and his henchman. After witnessing numerous atrocities and experiencing oppressive living conditions reminiscent of those he grew up in with his mother, Rocky suddenly has the potential to be something more than a hardened assassin. He could be a savior.

The film does a good job visualizing Rocky’s internal conflict during the second half. It does drag a little as it takes its time finally getting to the inevitable climax. But there is a struggle within Rocky that is pretty compelling. He’s not there to free anyone. He’s there to murder a cruel crime lord in order to gain the very power he vowed to gain. But he finds himself sympathetic to the plight of the people. But is that enough to pull him away from his own mission?

As the story’s simmer turns to a boil, we’re treated to a number of stylistic fight scenes and shoot-outs. The visual language of the action has a style all its own. It’s an array of brilliant choreography mixed with plenty of gratuitous slow-motion. At times it can be savage and completely over the top, yet all of it fits well within the almost mythical bounds of the film. The biggest inconsistency is with the editing. DP Bhuvan Gowda shoots one wow-worthy sequence after another, and he plays with a variety of cool techniques to give the movie its own energy. But the frenetic editing sometimes undermines Gowda’s eye-popping camerawork. It’s frustrating but hardly a deal-breaker.

By the end of “K.G.F: Chapter 1” I was both exhilarated and unsure. But the longer I’ve sat with it the more impressed I am with what Neel has created. Its criticisms make perfect sense. For some, the style-heavy flourishes will reach beyond overkill. Others will struggle with the fast-paced time-hopping and storytelling. Those are all legitimate beefs that do bring the movie down a notch. But once I fell in with its high-energy rhythm and its gritty immersive world, I was hooked. Better yet, I was all set for Chapter 2. “K.G.F: Chapter 1” is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.


REVIEW: “Kimi” (2022)

In “Kimi”, the new pandemic-era tech thriller from Steven Soderbergh, Zoë Kravitz plays Angela Childs, an employee of a Seattle tech company called Amygdala. She works from home as a voice stream interpreter, monitoring data streams recorded by the company’s premiere device Kimi. Kimi is a smart speaker similar to Amazon’s Alexa. But this one uses human monitoring to better tune the devices with their owners. It’s an understandably controversial practice that has put the company’s CEO Bradley Hasling (Derek DelGaudio) on the defensive.

Angela suffers from agoraphobia and anxiety which was only made worse by the COVID-19 lockdown. Now she stays holed up in her apartment listening to her streams and watching the people in the apartment building across the street. She’s fond of a neighbor named Terry (Byron Bowers), but she can’t even bring herself to step outside and meet him at a nearby food truck much less go out on a date.

Image Courtesy of HBO Max

All of that sets the table for Soderbergh’s latest, his third consecutive movie to release straight to streaming on HBO Max. The script is by screenwriter David Koepp whose career is littered with some big hits and some big misses. Here Koepp keeps a tight focus, putting together a clever and engaging story that’s driven by a terrific lead performance from Kravitz. Meanwhile Soderbergh brings his usual technique and sense of style that fans of his have come to expect.

The story really kicks into gear after Angela overhears a potential violent crime on one of her data streams. She goes through the proper channels and tries to report it to her bosses. But with the company set to hold an initial public offering, a huge scandal could cost Hasling millions of dollars. So upper management is in no rush to draw unwanted attention. But Angela digs deeper, and with the help of her Romanian tech colleague Darius (Alex Dobrenko), she uncovers something that Amygdala will go to any length to keep hidden.

The movie has two very different halves, but they come together seamlessly under Soderbergh’s direction. The first half is very much a character drama, and it puts a heavy focus on Angela and her struggles. Soderbergh and Kravitz do a good job in these early scenes of defining Angela for us. Soderbergh also does a great job making it feel very much like a film of our current time. Face masks, hand sanitizer, references to quarantine, etc. all will be looked at in years to come as a reminder of the challenges to normalcy all of us have faced.

Image Courtesy of HBO Max

The second half is when the film’s thriller element amps up. It’s also where we see most of Soderbergh’s creativity both with sound and the camera. There are certain tricks that really stand out and work well. Such as running certain scenes at a slightly higher speed or slyly tilting the camera an unusual angle. Both add a tense and disorienting feeling to specific moments in the story.

While its ending nearly comes unglued, Soderbergh keeps it together in large part due to the rooting interest we have in Angela. The film’s commitment to fully developing her into a character we care about pays dividends in the final 15 minutes as the movie goes full genre nuts. But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to liking how this thing ends. It’s a fitting finish to a movie that immersed, entertained, and surprised me throughout. “Kimi” is now streaming on HBO Max.


REVIEW: “King Richard” (2021)

(CLICK HERE for my full review in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

Will Smith makes his bid for an Oscar nomination in “King Richard”, a sports biopic about Richard Williams , the father and coach of tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams. For some folks (including myself), the description ‘sports biopic’ comes with its own baked-in expectations. Both sports movies and big screen biographies have a history of following all too familiar formulas and relying on the tried-and-true rather than offering something new. I’m not sure “King Richard” offers anything new, but it does tell its story well. And when you have such captivating subjects, sometimes that’s all you need to do.

Director Reinaldo Marcus Green and screenwriter Zach Baylin present Richard Williams as a man driven by the scars from his own painful past. It’s what motivates him to push his daughters harder than most; to raise them in their home and off the streets; to encourage them to pursue their dreams and overcome adversity. He preaches conviction, humility, and hard work. He’s determined that his girls will succeed where he didn’t and that they’ll have the father he never had. It’s an obsession born out of love, but an obsession nonetheless.

Image Courtesy of Warner Brothers.

With the girls in school, Richard hits country clubs around Los Angeles trying to convince local tennis pros to coach his daughters. After class, he practices with Venus and Serena on a rundown city court in a gang-infested part of town. He then ends his day working nights as a security guard. Lost in Richard’s aggressively up-front bravado is his wife Oracene (wonderfully played by Aunjanue Ellis), a stabilizing behind the scenes force who was crucial to the Williams sisters’ success.

Green and Baylin do a good job moving the story forward, and even at 138 minutes, the film never drags. It tracks Venus’ path to tennis stardom that takes the family out of Compton and to West Palm Beach, Florida. It covers their close relationship with renowned tennis coach Rick Macci (a terrific Jon Bernthal). It shows Venus’ decision to turn pro at only 14-years-old. And the movie doesn’t shy away from the inescapable racial component that simmers under the surface. It’s deftly handled by Green whose calculated restraint lets us sense it and feel it ourselves.

I don’t mean this as a knock, but I wasn’t prepared for how good Will Smith is in this. Grizzled and hunched, the star vanishes into the title role, delivering one of the very best performances of his career. Smith thoughtfully channels Richard’s confidence, his eccentricities, and his deeply buried bitterness in ways that never resemble mimicry. He’s helped by the warm and organic chemistry he has with Sydney and Singleton (both great). Meanwhile the film’s secret ingredient is Ellis who (much like her character) often sits in the background but speaks with strength whenever something needs to be said.

Image Courtesy of Warner Brothers

“King Richard” doesn’t quite avoid all of the sports movie trappings. Take the final 20 minutes or so which are spent on one long, overdramatized tennis match. It’s something sports movies love to end with – the big match, the big game, the big race, the big fight. Yet this film still maintains enough nuance to separate it from other feel-good crowdpleasers of its kind.

In the end, it’s hard to watch “King Richard” without being inspired, not by the money and fame, but by the fact that Richard Williams’ preposterous plan actually worked. It shows that any family, who’s full of love and deeply committed, can overcome their circumstances and do something great. Of course having two of the greatest athletes of all-time in your family probably doesn’t hurt. “King Richard” is now showing in theaters and streaming on HBO Max.


REVIEW: “Kate” (2021)

(CLICK HERE to read my full review in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

It seems like only a few days ago that I was reviewing a movie about a female assassin who dreams of a normal life but is bound to her violent (and apparently popular with moviegoers) profession. Of course it came packaged with a traumatic backstory, a mentor / father figure, and a mission of vengeance ending in a bloodstained showdown where the assassin’s occupational artistry is on full display.

The latest to join the crowded field is “Kate”, a new Netflix Original and the second movie helmed by French filmmaker Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, an Oscar-nominated visual effects artist who turned to directing in 2016 with the shaky “The Huntsman: Winter’s War”. To his credit, Nicolas-Troyan brings splashes of style and plenty of grit to “Kate”. But in the end it’s nothing we haven’t seen several times before.

You could say that the sometimes vicious and often ultra-violent “Kate” has a late 1970s grindhouse appeal (for those who find grindhouse films appealing). I admit to having a nostalgic soft spot for a select few of those movies although only in measured doses. Looked at a certain way, “Kate” could have melded right into a quadruple feature at the old Cameo Theater in Los Angeles or had its four-letter name wedged onto a cramped 42nd Street marquee in New York City.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

But to be fair, ”Kate” isn’t a trashy film and it certainly doesn’t look cheap (well, there is that one car chase sequence). Yet with bursts of gnarly brutality and an almost primitive in-your-face energy, the movie could rightfully bear the grindhouse label. In fact, that propulsive energy and a fun leading turn by Mary Elizabeth Winstead is what keeps “Kate” afloat. Unfortunately the repetitive nature of this sudden wave of assassin movies has caught up to them, and “Kate” simply doesn’t have enough ideas of its own.

The story opens in Osaka, Japan with a eponymous killer-for-hire (Winstead) all set to take out a powerful Yakuza clan leader. But just as Kate is about to pull the trigger, out walks the target’s young daughter. Kate hesitates but is instructed by the voice in her earpiece to take the shot. She reluctantly does, killing the gangster and leaving the distraught and blood-splattered little girl clinging to her father’s corpse.

Ten months pass and Kate is still tormented by what happened in Osaka. So much so that she’s ready to hang up her 9mms and call it a career. “I want a life,” she tells her long-time handler Varrick (Woody Harrelson), “a real regular life.” But Varrick is skeptical. “Two trips to Wal-Mart and you’ll be back”, he quips in that unmistakable Harrelson Southern drawl. Still Kate is determined to move on, but only after finishing that proverbial ‘one final mission’.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

But if there is anything these movies have taught us it’s that life as an assassin isn’t something you can just get up and walk away from. And like so many of the other predictable and trope-filled films, “Kate” follows a well-worn formula with only a couple of original touches. Here her last job leads to her being poisoned and only given 24 hours to live. Instead of giving up, she sets out to even the score before her clock runs out. And wouldn’t you know it, she finds an unlikely ally in a potty-mouthed young girl named Ani (Miku Patricia Martineau) – the same little girl who watched her father gunned down in the opening scene.

The rest of the movie runs us from one action scene to the next, sprinkling in a little character development along the way. The stylishly made fight sequences can be exhilarating with Winstead showing off some impressive action star chops. But the copious amount of bloodletting via face punches, throat-slices and point-blank headshots can only carry so much of the load and even they begin to feel old hat.

While I loved seeing Mary Elizabeth Winstead handed a well-deserved starring role, it’s not a particularly weighty one. Yet she gives it everything she’s got, even adding texture to a fairly conventional character type. Harrelson is solidly Harrelson, Kunimura brings welcomed gravitas and Martineau adds a spirited kick. But the all-too-familiar story leaves nothing for the imagination. Sure it’s serviceable one-and-done entertainment. But those hoping for a fresh and meatier diversion might want to add something else to their Netflix queue.