THE KITE RUNNER: 3 STARS
The Kite Runner is a condensation of an epic best selling book about two young boys from different social classes who have a profound effect on one another’s lives. Directed by Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball, Finding Neverland), and set in a pre-Taliban Afghanistan, the release of the film was delayed by Paramount for six weeks for fear that the four young Afghani actors who appear in the film’s pivotal, but non-graphic rape scene, would suffer reprisals. With the boys safely out of Afghanistan and relocated in the United Arab Emirates the film is now in wide release.
The movie is mostly played in flashback. Starting in 2000 the story jumps back to Kabul in 1978. The 12-year-old Amir (Zekeria Ebrahimi) and Hassan (Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada) are best friends, separated only by class. Amir’s family employs Hassan’s but the two boys have grown up as brothers. Together they win a competition to determine the best kite runners in Kabul. When Hassan runs to retrieve their winning kite he is viciously assaulted by a group of older boys who use ethnic slurs to describe Hassan’s Hazara heritage. According to them he is not a “real Afghani” and when they’re done he is brutalized and humiliated.
Amir, looking for his friend, innocently stumbles across the assault but is paralyzed by fear and unable to help his loyal friend. Wracked by guilt at his lack of action he begins to hate his friend who he know regards as a constant reminder of his cowardice. The boys are permanently separated when the Russians invade the country and force Amir and his family to flee to America.
Relocated to California Amir strives to become a writer while his father, once a rich, influential man, is reduced to working at a gas station as his health fails. Cut forward to 2000. On the eve of a promotional tour for his first book Amir receives a phone call from an old friend, now living in Pakistan. Memories of his past are strong enough for him to cancel the tour and put his new life on hold while he goes back home to confront the life he left behind.
Forster is no stranger to highly charged emotional material. Monster’s Ball tackled racism in American with a raw intensity rarely seen in mainstream movies, and once again he packs an emotional wallop—at least in the first half of the film.
He is aided in this by the casting of Zekeria Ebrahimi as Amir and Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada as Hassan. Their section of the film is the most engaging, containing wonderfully naturalistic performances from these two boys—neither had ever acted before—and a gripping story of how innocence can be brutally stripped away. Mahmidzada particularly shines as the loyal Hassan, a saintly figure who does the right thing no matter what the cost. His strength of character combined with his natural childlike exuberance makes this one of the best kid’s performances of recent memory.
Unfortunately things so south in the latter part of the film. Once the action shifts from California to the Middle East the movie changes pace, taking on the feel of an action film. It’s shame because the story doesn’t warrant or need this kind of treatment. Not helping matters is Scottish actor Khalid Abdalla (best known for his work in United 93) as the grown-up Amir. His performance here has none of the magic of his younger counterpart and falls very flat. His return to the post-Taliban Afghanistan is played like a Bruce Willis movie, but without the bravado necessary to it off. Forster leaves the emotional complexity of the film’s first half behind, completely dropping the textually rich feel of the characters and situation.
The Kite Runner is half of a great movie with a so-so film tacked on to the end.