The Kite Runner is at first set against the backdrop of Kabul in the late '70s, shortly before the entirety of Afghanistan was upended by political unrest and a Soviet invasion. Young Amir (Zekeria Ebrahimi) has been reared in wealth and privilege, in stark contrast to his doggedly loyal best friend Hassan (Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada), the Hazara son of one of his father's servants. The two are inseparable, fawning over Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson in The Magnificent Seven and gleefully taking part in Kabul's dazzling kite fights. His father (Homayoun Ershadi) -- a stoic Atticus Finch analogue -- is disappointed with his son's inability to stand up for himself, but he takes some comfort in the fact that Hassan is so eager to serve as Amir's protector, subjecting himself to abuse time and again at the hand of bullies so his friend can make a clean getaway. Amir watches on passively as Hassan suffers through one particularly brutal, scarring attack. Although his friend is still unwaveringly loyal, Amir is so racked with guilt that he can no longer stand the sight of him, even scheming to have Hassan and his family's lifelong servant removed from the palatial estate. They part ways shortly before the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan. Amir and his father wield enough influence to claw their way to the United States, where they live in relative poverty but are at least healthy and happy. Hassan is not so fortunate and soon fades from memory. Decades later, Amir has settled into a comfortable life -- married and ekeing out a living in San Francisco as a novelist -- but he's jarred by an unexpected phone call from Afghanistan that offers him
This story of unconditional love and redemption is deliberately anchored around an antihero: a character who's weak-willed and fairly thoroughly unlikeable. The bulk of the characters throughout The Kite Runner are thinly sketched, there to serve the plot rather than fleshed out with any dimensionality, but Amir suffers the worst. I'm sure the point is to make Amir's ascension that much more triumphant when he finally does discover a backbone, but he's so repulsive and aggressively bland that I never felt invested in his journey. The Kite Runner is so hellbent on conveying some sort of epic scope -- it's a coming-of-age story stitched together with the difficulty of immigrants acclimating to an unfamiliar country, a budding romance, and the awkward, action-oriented crescendo it builds to -- that it loses sight of its characters. Hassan ceases to be so much as an afterthought once those decades-old memories surface for a stab at redemption, sapping the cartoonishly over-the-top third act of whatever strength it might have enjoyed otherwise.
Throughout virtually every last frame of The Kite Runner, I felt as if director Mark Forster had his hand clutched too tightly on one of my shoulders, hissing "thisss is where you cry" as the movie bounds from one cloying emotional setpiece to the next. Forster lacks the proper respect for his audience to allow the emotions to cascade organically, instead corralling viewers like sheep and instructing them at every turn where to go and what to feel. Manipulation is hardly uncommon in film, but Forster doesn't have the deft touch to do it with any subtlety. The Kite Runner also loses its way once the movie steps foot outside the '70s. The charming, natural performances by the young actors are missed, especially once Hassan vanishes from the narrative, and the adult Amir (now played by Khalid Abdalla) is convincingly haunted but too milquetoast to inspire those same emotional hooks. A hollow and oversentimental grab for an Oscar, The Kite Runner feels as if it's pandering, really. It's not a terrible film, but The Kite Runner is too mediocre to recommend with any enthusiasm. Rent It.
Encoded with AVC at a remarkably healthy bitrate, The Kite Runner looks spectacular in high definition. The scope photography is dazzlingly crisp and detailed, retaining a thin veil of grain that lends the image a wonderfully filmlike texture. Its colors alternate between sunbaked and subdued, and these hues are strikingly saturated regardless of which way they lean in any particular shot. Black levels are robust as well, and Roberto Schaefer's cinematography is further bolstered by a stronger than average sense of depth and dimensionality. This is a thoroughly impressive effort from Dreamworks.
The Kite Runner boasts a 24-bit Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack that's more lively than I'd traditionally expect for this sort of drama. Alberto Iglesias' Academy Award-nominated score is reinforced by a robust low-end, and from scampering children in the streets of Kabul to kites tearing through the sky to the creaking metal inside an oil tanker, there's a consistently strong sense of ambiance and directionality on display throughout the film. The Kite Runner's dialogue is balanced effectively in the mix and is rendered without any concerns.
Also included are Dolby Digital 5.1 dubs in French and Spanish. Subtitles are offered in English (traditional and SDH), French, Spanish, and Portuguese. Much of the film's dialogue is in Dari Persian and subtitled in English, and those titles are rendered within the scope frame rather than spilling over into the letterboxing bars to accommodate owners of constant image height projection rigs.
The core of the intensely personal epic that's woven throughout The Kite Runner is intriguing enough; it's more than a little reminiscent of To Kill a Mockingbird, only with a more exotic backdrop. Not having read the original novel leaves me without a point of reference, but this film adaptation, at least, is so shamelessly manipulative that it pulled me wholly out of the story. Every emotional beat seems like a coldly calculated attempt at chasing teary eyes and an armful of laurels, not that Marc Forster is a director who's particularly legendary for subtlety. Although I left The Kite Runner with an indifferent shrug, at least its release on Blu-ray looks and sounds wonderful, and admirers of the novel and this adaptation ought to be impressed by how well it translates to high definition. Rent It.