Kandahar too lofty, Fast X running on empty, Jennifer Lopez sinks Mother

Kadahar falls short of its ambition

Though it's being promoted as a standard Gerard Butler actioner, there's far more at play in Ric Roman Waugh's Kandahar. Working from a script by former Defense Intelligence Agency officer Mitchell LaFortune, it strives to present the current unrest in the Middle East from a variety of different perspectives. It's a noble effort; however, the complexities the movie attempts to explain prove too much for a two-hour feature.

Tom Harris (Butler) is a veteran CIA agent on the verge of burnout. Having just taken out a nuclear reactor in Iran, he's in need of some down time, eager to get home for his daughter's high school graduation. However, this is not to be, as Harris' contact approaches him with a new mission of the highest urgency, He's paired with a translator, Mo (Navid Negahban), who's agreed to accompany him to Kandahar for his own reasons. His son having been killed by the Taliban, he's returned in the hopes of finding his sister-in-law, so he may help her flee the country. Not long after setting down in enemy territory, a leak out of the Pentagon exposes Harris' identity and his assignment. What ensues is a desperate attempt to reach an extraction point 400 miles away, these two strange bedfellows forced to depend on one another for their survival.

It takes 45 minutes for us to get to this point, too much time being spent delving into the motivations of the various government agencies, militant factions and other separatist groups in the region. And while I appreciate the lengths LaFortune goes to in order to make this into more than simply another genre effort, the script gets bogged down with murky explanations of the myriad players' motivations.

The languid pace Waugh adapts is the killing blow. Even the action scenes fail to reach their potential. The gun battles are executed in a rote manner, a promising car chase peters out and a nighttime chase involving an SUV and a helicopter in stealth mode suffers from obvious budget constraints. As it is, Kandahar plays like a truncated version of a grand vision that exceeds Waugh and LaFortune's grasp. In theaters.

X Running on empty

Fast X gets off on the right foot by inserting and recreating scenes from Fast Five, the high watermark of the series. Seems the drug lord Dom Toretto (Diesel) and his crew took out in Rio de Janeiro had a son, a hulking psychopath by the name of Dante (Jason Mamoa). He obviously adheres to the notion that revenge is a dish best served cold because now, some 10 years after the events of Five, he wants revenge. With unlimited amounts of cash at his disposal (another similarity to the Wick films), he has set into motion a chain of events that will not only separate our glowering hero from his family but send the members of his crew on the run after being falsely accused of terrorism.

The bread-and-butter of these films are their elaborate action set-pieces, which are meant to thrill. However, director Louis Leterrier and his cutters Dylan Highsmith and Kelly Matsumoto edit for maximum distraction. Different angles and perspectives are changed with such rapidity it not only becomes nearly impossible to follow the action, but it creates spatial confusion. At times, it's unfeasible to determine where characters, cars and other lethal objects are in relation to each other. As such, these moments come off as frustrating rather than thrilling, empty scenes that bludgeon and ultimately numb the viewer to their sound and fury.

As for the film's final 10 minutes, it defies all logic. Dom and his son manage to escape a fiery trap by driving down the side of the Hoover Dam, while a character, long thought dead, reappears. Shame on me for being surprised – these resurrections have become a series trope, yet another element that undercuts any sort of tension these films attempt to create. The good news is a post-credits scene marks the unexpected return of a fan favorite. The bad news is, I will have to sit through Fast XI. I'm not sure what sins I've committed that have damned me to this fate. In theaters.

Lopez's ego kills Mother

I tried to approach Niki Caro's The Mother with an open mind, I really did. I knew there would be little in the way of originality where this actioner was concerned, but that certainly hasn't prevented other copycat productions from being effective. However, the self-serious tone affected by its star throughout was something I just couldn't get past. In the title role, Jennifer Lopez just can't get out of her own way to allow herself or the viewer to have any fun. No, she approaches this as if it were Shakespeare, when what is needed all along is her tongue planted firmly in cheek.

As a tough-as-nails former special forces assassin, Lopez glowers throughout as if she's been told that showing any emotion might crack her face. Seeking a deal so that she can come in from out of the cold, things go sideways when old allies – Adrian (Joseph Fiennes) and Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal) – come out of the woodwork to ensure she doesn't spill the tea. Wouldn't you know it, the veteran is pregnant, and somehow, she and her unborn child survive being stabbed in the stomach. Though reticent to do so, she allows her daughter to be put with a foster family, knowing she'll be safer growing up in the 'burbs. However, 12 years later the location of the girl, Zoe (Lucy Perez), has been leaked and the bad guys come calling, kidnapping her in the hopes it will bring their former compatriot out of hiding.

Caro knows how to choreograph a decent action sequence, and she tries her best to keep us intrigued with moments that are more grounded in reality than other films of this ilk. However, everything revolves around Lopez, and she is the weak link. Each dramatic choice she makes is obvious, each a look-at-me decision that ensures she's the focus of every scene she's in. It's a selfish approach, and she simply doesn't have the chops to pull it off. Not only does she give a one-note performance, but it's off-key as well. Streaming on Netflix.

Chuck Koplinski

Writing for Illinois Times since 1998, Chuck Koplinski is a member of the Critic's Choice Association, the Chicago Film Critics Association and a contributor to Rotten Tomatoes. He appears on WCIA-TV twice a week to review current releases and, no matter what anyone says, thinks Tom Cruise's version of The Mummy...

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