The key to many a good movie is to have a really bad baddie. If you’ve seen The Kite Runner, you’ll know that the Taliban make great baddies. After all, the years they ruled Afghanistan in the late 90s earned them the reputation for being one one of the nastiest regimes in the world. Kandahar Break takes advantage of their violent and repressive ways and is set in and around the city in 1999.
The film starts with Richard Lee (played by Shaun Dooley, of The Mark of Cain and Red Riding, who originally hails from Barnsley, Yorkshire) returning to Afghanistan where he works clearing the land mines that litter the country. His principle team member is another gruff northerner, Steve Delamore (Dean Andrews, of Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes fame). It soon becomes clear that Richard has something of a romance going with one of their two female translators, the beautiful Jamillah (Tatmain Ul Qulb, a Pakistani fashion model). After the pair get caught kissing, Richard first attempts to save her from a stoning and then has to go on the run in an attempt to reach the safety of Pakistan. Meanwhile, Steve tries to help his mate out, while keeping on the right side of the seriously trigger-happy Taliban.
From the scene where the two Brits meet, it becomes clear that these are probably not their finest performances. Although the acting gets better through the course of the movie (or perhaps we learn to ignore it), that first encounter is etched on the mind as wooden as a piece of Yorkshire two-by-four.
Richard, it turns out, is a bit of a prat. First, in a very tense scene, he almost gets himself shot by an irate guard for peeing in full view of their female colleagues – a huge breach of protocol and something that one assumes he should know about. Then, the stray looks and poignant expressions between Richard and Jamillah, are revealed to be because the two are in love. Whether an Afghan woman, even one who has lived in New York like Jamillah, would or could really have a relationship with a westerner under the Taliban regime is a moot point.
If we believe in this rather unlikely situation for the sake of the film (bearing in mind that under the Taliban, even starving widows were not allowed to leave their houses to earn money to feed their families and remembering that the war-ravaged country had many, many widows), the pair inevitably get spotted canoodling – they hadn’t even closed the curtains. Before you can say ‘I’m a humourless, blood-thirsty fundamentalist’ Jamillah is dragged off to suffer one of the infamous Taliban stonings. Richard attempts to save her and finds himself on the run – trying to make it to the border.
The local Taliban leader, Ashiq Khan (Rasheed Naz, a veteran of Pakistani movies and television) is what we’ve been waiting for: a great baddie and a fine actor to boot. The film really gets going when he’s on the screen, he captures the fury and lust for revenge of a hate filled ideologue very well.
It’s fair to say the Pakistani actors do a much better job than their English counterparts. When Richard is huffing and puffing his way through the mountains trying to make it across the border to Pakistan, he bumps into Omar Baloch (Hameed Sheikh, who is also one of the film’s producers) the leader of a small group of guerrillas fighting for independence for the region of Balochistan. This charming character introduces himself, rather amusingly, as being in the import/export business and reminded me of Art Malik as the suave, Oxford-educated mujahideen who comes to James Bond’s rescue in The Living Daylights. Baloch then helps lead the beleaguered Brit though the treacherous countryside.
Despite the uneven acting, Kandahar Break is a good effort for a first feature-length movie from its director David Whitney. He skilfully builds tension, to sometimes heart pounding levels and introduces some interesting twists into the story. The cinematography highlights the stark beauty of the country – almost like searing majesty of Monument Valley – and reinforces the idea that Afghanistan will one day be be the perfect spot for hiking holidays.
Kandahar Break is out in selected cinemas September 10 and available to own on DVD/Blu-Ray from September 13 (also available via digital download from iTunes, Love Film, Playstation and Sky VOD).
See the trailer here: