The full title of The Covenant is technically Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant (now streaming on VOD services like Amazon Prime Video), which differentiates it significantly from similarly titled movies that are either religious in theme or horror tales. Interesting how Ritchie’s name is so prominent here, considering it’s a creative departure for the veteran director, and is Not Your Father’s Guy Ritchie movie – although it’s such a straight and square story of valor and honor, your father is more likely to enjoy it than, say, Snatch. The former Mr. Madonna tames his stylistic flourishes for this one, casting Jake Gyllenhaal as an Army sergeant during the War in Afghanistan who finds himself in a world of shit alongside Dar Salim’s Afghan interpreter. First impression? The movie – a fiction set during an all-too-real war – smashes assumptions that Guy Ritchie could never make a movie rooted in earnestness.
THE COVENANT: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
The Gist: Onscreen text explains how the U.S. military employed 50,000 interpreters to assist soldiers on the ground during the 20-year Afghan occupation. MARCH, 2018: Sgt. John Kinley (Gyllenhaal) leads a special-ops team assigned to sniff out and neutralize Taliban weapon storehouses. They’re manning a checkpoint when a sketchy situation unfolds: An Afghan man in a truck resists a search, then seems to be slowly backing away from his own vehicle. It explodes, killing one of Kinley’s soldiers and an interpreter.
Back at the base, Kinley eyeballs a half-dozen guys to be the new interpreter. They have to be experienced. Rough. Battle-ready. “Basically, we get in trouble,” is how Kinley explains the gig to Ahmed (Salim). He’s OK with that. He knows four languages, knows a lot of people – “I’m a man about town” – and can fix anything with an engine. Ahmed is a straight shooter – when asked why he wants the job, he says he needs the money. And Ahmed is that in a literal sense, too, which will come in handy when they get in scrapes. During their first outing, Ahmed goes off script. He’s too smart to follow Kinley’s orders to a T. He shoots straight: “Your intel is poo poo,” Ahmed tells Kinley – and he’s right. They banter a bit, all deadpan. Between them, they’ve seen a lot of shit. Turns out Ahmed used to deal heroin with his brother, but the Taliban killed his son and his loyalty shifted; now his wife is pregnant. On their second outing, Ahmed sniffs out a mole in Kinley’s unit, saving everyone’s ass from an ambush. Trust is established.
As for their third mission? It’s promising. Kinley leads the group to an old mine where the Taliban stashes a mess of arms. They have control of the situation until, as they say, they don’t. More and more Taliban fighters arrive and even though their marksmanship makes Stormtroopers look like Olympic biathlon competitors and Kinley and Ahmed rarely fire a round that doesn’t hit a bad guy, there’s just too many. Our two guys take off down the mountain and try to work their way god knows how many clicks back to the base, stabbing and choking Taliban mofos when shooting wouldn’t be aurally prudent, and camping out for a night or three. They seem to be in the clear until, as they say, they aren’t. Kinley takes a bullet. Then another. And then a rifle butt to the forehead. Where’s Ahmed? Hold tight. He’s nearby. Did you ever doubt the guy? No? Well, you were right f—ing on, then.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: The Covenant is a far cry from Ritchie’s flippant, enjoyably empty Jason Statham outings of late, e.g. Operation Fortune and Wrath of Man. The director ends up outdoing Peter Berg at his own 21st-century desert-based wartime action-drama game – Berg helmed The Kingdom and Lone Survivor – and functions as a metaphor for the U.S.’ catastrophic 2021 withdrawal from Afghanistan, so terrifyingly captured in 2022 documentary Escape from Kabul.
Performance Worth Watching: We are well aware that the intensity of Gyllenhaal’s performances is nigh-legendary – Nightcrawler, Enemy, Prisoners, Jarhead, Zodiac, and the list goes on. His performance in The Covenant is up to par, absolutely, but Salim is a revelation, confidently holding his own across from the patented Gyllenhaal intensity, each actor drawing depth of character out of the other.
Memorable Dialogue: Ahmed splits a hair:
Kinley: You’re out of bounds, Ahmed. You’re here to translate.
Ahmed: Actually, I’m here to interpret.
Sex and Skin: None.
Our Take: It’s telling how Ritchie never indulges one of his signature sequences in The Covenant, a flash-forward with voiceover narration in which the leader of an endeavor outlines the plan while we watch the players set up the scenario accordingly – the film-directorial version of arranging the chess pieces on the board to execute strategy. The situation in Afghanistan was far too unpredictable and volatile, and if Ritchie had succumbed to such a stylistic extravagance, he’d undermine his own credibility as a storyteller who’s capable of taking seriously a tragic morass of an international conflict like the War in Afghanistan. Although his protagonists often pull off acts of daring and heroism to rival action-movie stars, this is clearly Ritchie’s most straightforward effort yet, a stylistically grounded, emotionally earnest picture boasting strong lead performances and several high-tension action sequences.
The dynamic here is our investment in Kinley and Ahmed’s survival – they’re good people, family men, with simple convictions. Ritchie isn’t interested in the politics of the situation, a hopeless war that cost many countries many lives and, in the end, accomplished very little. It’s essentially a male-bonding story about two unlikely comrades saving each other’s asses, and the screenplay does its due diligence by addressing the psychological trauma they endure. Well, at least that Kinely endures, since the situation he finds himself in ends up mirroring the disservice done to Afghan citizens with the U.S.’ botched withdrawal. It’s a sincere sentiment, if not exactly a deep one; the metaphor is a bit flimsy, and Ritchie’s acumen for staging and executing shootouts and stalk-and-stabs is stronger than his ability to make poignant political commentary. But his eye remains on the people on the ground, which very well may be his point – in this situation and in real life, our hearts should be with them.
Our Call: The Covenant is a rock-solid modern-war thriller that keeps us locked in for two hours. STREAM IT and give Ritchie a nod of approval for diversifying his oeuvre.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.