If you’re looking for an actor to play a gruff action man who can’t seem to catch a break, there are certainly worse options out there than Gerard Butler. Over the better part of the last decade, he has become the go-to performer to play a character who will have to fight their way out of a rough spot against seemingly overwhelming obstacles. Usually, this is to get home to his stock family who seem to exist primarily through phone calls in order to provide something resembling a character motivation. Just this year, we saw this basic structure play out in the underwhelming Plane that Butler did his best to bring something more to only for it to never really take flight. 

Still, it managed to let loose in its conclusion and make up for some of what had preceded it. When looking back on it in comparison to Butler’s second film to release this year, the increasingly tedious Kandahar, that now looks like a masterpiece. Billed as being an action thriller, the actor’s latest outing is a meandering and uncertain movie whose greatest accomplishment is how utterly unmemorable it is despite a lot being thrown out there.To qualify as an action movie, a movie must have action. “Kandahar” isn’t an action movie. 

It’s a war movie. Action occurs, yes, and some good action, too; one sequence, in particular, takes place at night, with little but gunfire and occasional POV shots through Tom’s infrared goggles to clarify what’s happening. But an action version of the same story would pare down the plot and let Butler go wild, gunning down anonymous bad guys. It might not include Luna, or high school graduation, or especially Butler’s co-star, Navid Negahban, who plays Mohammad, or “Mo” – Tom’s translator on the assignment that never was. Mo is essential to sculpting “Kandahar’s” identity as Afghan war cinema. This isn’t just a big, dumb, loud production about two men fleeing war-torn Afghanistan and leaving a trail of flaming wreckage in their wake. It’s a big, dumb, loud production that sincerely wants to make statements on the United States’ culpability in the nation’s present predicament. 

“You risk your life for us, and then we tell you exactly what your country should look like and how you should act,” Tom tells Mo in a doleful monologue after that nighttime shootout. “Half the time, we don’t even say ‘thank you.’” Here, “Kandahar” finally lets the audience in on what Waugh and LaFortune want to communicate to them, the “stuff” of their work: an admission of accountability and an apology. They’re qualified to offer neither of these because they’re in the movie business and not the war business. Still, Butler is so good at bringing soul to his version of the macho American action hero that it’s impossible to take the message as anything other than genuine. Tom means it; Waugh means it; LaFortune means it. 

Not only is the pace tepid at best, but Tom is a bore, with at least three characters more intriguing than he is. Chief among them is Mo, portrayed by the excellent Navid Negahban (“Homeland,” “Aladdin”). An Afghan exile, he has returned home to try to locate his sister-in-law — a more compelling quest than Butler’s, whose prime motivation is … what exactly? Not being late to his daughter’s graduation in London? The nominal star is constantly overshadowed by his co-stars, who also include Ali Fazal as the dashing, motorcycle-riding Pakistani agent and Bahador Foladi as Iran’s answer to Inspector Javert.

More aggravating is the way “Kandahar” keeps bringing up girls and women — on a large scale, the Taliban oppresses them; on a more intimate one, Tom is an absentee husband and father — without actually giving any of them decent screen time. The lip service only makes that absence more noticeable.