Treating the ongoing struggles in Afghanistan with crude indecision and larky silliness, "Kabul Express" at once lamely revives buddy road pics and trivializes global politics. Commercially shrewd casting of hunky Bollywood action star John Abraham will position pic well for international play

Treating the ongoing struggles in Afghanistan with crude indecision and larky silliness, “Kabul Express” at once lamely revives buddy road pics and trivializes global politics. Commercially shrewd casting of hunky Bollywood action star John Abraham as an Indian journo far out of his element in devastated Kabul will position pic well for international play, boosted by launch at surprisingly prestigious fest posts in Toronto, Pusan and London.

Poorly judged opener depicts TV news reporter Suhel (Abraham) and his cameraman Jai (Arshad Warsi) getting dropped off by helicopter outside of Kabul in late November 2001. They are blindfolded by renegade Taliban en route to Suhel’s coveted interview with a top Taliban leader. Combination of cutesy editing devices and the pair’s lack of the slightest bit of credibility as working press sets a bogus impression that pic fails to get out of its system.

Slightly more charming is docu vet and tyro writer-director Kabir Khan’s conscious allusions to such jaunty Hollywood filmmakers of yore as George Roy Hill, as he interjects regular doses of light buddy comedy and whimsical action into an otherwise serious set of circumstances. To be sure, though, Abraham and Warsi are no Newman and Redford.

After blowing their one chance to get their Taliban exclusive, the pair turns to their driver Khyber (Hanif Hum Ghum), who provides the voice of the Afghan Everyman fatigued with decades of war. Next, they meet Jessica (Linda Arsenio, looking quite out-of-sorts), an American photojournalist for Reuters, but their jolly adventure goes south when Taliban outlaw Imran (the commanding Salman Shahid) hijacks their truck and demands safe passage to the Pakistan border.

Apart from the physical starkness of the action being set in Kabul and its landscape of spectacularly gutted buildings, pic’s most interesting cultural traits involve the state of mind of Asians like Suhel and Jai, who live firmly in the modern world and feel utterly alien in such a non-modern Asian region. Pic’s view of the Pakistani military, seen as collaborating with Taliban and killing their own with impunity, will cause “Kabul Express” to be banned in that country.

But for all the weighty topics at the periphery, pic is so slight that it barely leaves an impression after credits wrap. As in other Yash Raj productions, no expense is spared in making the film look great, starting with Anshuman Mahaley’s sun-drenched widescreen lensing. Khan gets good but not notable support from his action director, Shyam Kaushal.

Julius Packiam’s extensive score, featuring a terrific theme cue, compensates for absence of songs.

Kabul Express

India

Production

A Yash Chopra presentation of a Yash Raj Films production. (International sales: Yash Raj Films, Mumbai.) Produced by Aditya Chopra. Executive producer, Rajan Kapoor. Directed, written by Kabir Khan. Action director, Shyam Kaushal.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen,) Anshuman Mahaley; editor, Amitabh Shukla; music, Julius Packiam; production designer, Anjan Gajurel; costume designer, Shamanaz Parakh; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS), Rishi Oberoi; supervising sound editor, Ali Merchant; visual effects supervisor, Pankaj Khandpur; assistant director, Sandeep Srivastava. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentation), Sept. 6, 2006. (Also in Pusan, London film festivals.) Running time: 105 MIN.

With

John Abraham, Arshad Warsi, Salman Shahid, Hanif Hum Ghum, Linda Arsenio. (Hindi, Dari, English dialogue)

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