‘Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant’ Review: Jake Gyllenhaal Plays a Man Determined to Honor a Debt in Gripping Afghan War Drama
After building a career on flashy action, explosive set pieces and quippy bad-boy dialogue, Guy Ritchie dials things down to a pleasing degree, focusing more on human factors like honor, loyalty and dogged perseverance in the war thriller. The Covenant. That doesn’t mean the director has abandoned his taste for brawny physical elements. But this is a serious-minded, well-acted drama that shows just as keen an interest in character, specifically the integrity of two men from vastly different cultures who provide the story of brotherhood and survival with its racing pulse.
The official title of the MGM/STX release is Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant, and while it’s tempting to respond with an eye roll to the Brit director’s elevation to auteur status 25 years into his highly variable career, the reasoning behind the decision reportedly was to distinguish the film from the dire 2006 horror thriller of the same name. Wouldn’t it have been easier just to come up with a different title?
Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant
The Bottom Line
A gritty change of pace for the director.
Either way, it’s ironic that this might be the most atypical Guy Ritchie film to date. Sure, there’s a certain numbing familiarity to American military dudes exchanging mock-gay banter as if the very notion of queerness in uniform is hilarious, and the dialogue in the script by Ritchie, Ivan Atkinson and Marn Davies indulges in one or two Big Noble Speeches. . But for the most part, the project shows a new maturity, avoiding the glib facetiousness and tricksy plotting that have so often been part of the Ritchie stamp.
In US Army Special Forces Sgt. John Kinley, Jake Gyllenhaal has found a meaty role that deftly fuses his action-thriller experience with the quieter interiority of his more character-driven work. He plays a level-headed soldier who narrowly escapes a hairy ordeal alive, subsequently falling apart and rebuilding himself when he discovers that his country’s promises to the man to whom he owes his life have not been honored.
A quick prologue shows Kinley’s unit at a vehicle checkpoint, where a truck rigged with explosives takes out one of his men as well as their Afghan interpreter. Back at the air base, John handpicks polyglot former mechanic Ahmed (Dar Salim) to replace the interpreter, despite his headstrong reputation. The unit’s mission is to find Taliban ammunition caches and IEDs, but their intel has been shaky, yielding frustration as John’s final tour of duty drags on.
Commanding officer Col. Vokes (Jonny Lee Miller) agrees to turn a blind eye when Kinley suggests a less by-the-book approach and obtains a list of unvetted targets from his buddy Sgt. Declan O’Brady (Alexander Ludwig). Twice during the moves that follow, Ahmed oversteps his rank, but his instincts prove correct, saving the unit from fresh casualties. Likewise, his background in the drug trade, at one time in partnership with the Taliban, provides useful insight.
The film balances John’s video calls home to his wife, Caroline (Emily Beecham), in California with Ahmed’s reassurances to his pregnant wife, Basira (Fariba Sheikhan), that they need to be patient and continue waiting for the special immigrant visa promised by the US to Afghan interpreters and their families.
What’s surprising about The Covenant is that the usual gung-ho American military bravery is mostly downplayed to focus on the strategic backup provided by on-the-ground interpreters, who risked being branded as infidels, ostracized by their compatriots and tagged for Taliban reprisals. Fifty thousand of them were employed over the two decades of the US war in Afghanistan, with many killed before America could make good on its agreement to relocate them. The title refers as much to that pact as the unspoken pledge between John and Ahmed.
The screenplay weaves in just enough doubt about Ahmed’s allegiances to create tension early on. But his trustworthiness becomes clear during the nail-biting centerpiece sequence that results in a high fatality count and leaves the interpreter and Kinley fleeing on foot. Ritchie is in his element with this weapons action, with the protagonists far outnumbered by Taliban assailants, although he keeps the fates of the two men in focus without any sensationalized battle bravado.
With John badly wounded, the thriller shifts gears to track Ahmed’s resourceful efforts to deliver the sergeant back to the American air base, hauling him across rugged mountain ranges to avoid the roads and checkpoints where they are being hunted and giving him opium to ease the pain. .
The narrative is switched up again once John is safely returned to California, losing his grip as his foggy memories become clear and he learns that Ahmed and his family have had to go into hiding from the Taliban. John’s growing rage with the maddening bureaucracy gives Gyllenhaal other shades to play; the calm control John showed in Afghanistan gives way to PTSD, excessive drinking and abusive outbursts on armed forces helplines. Given little choice, he undertakes to return to Afghanistan and repay the debt himself, securing the aid of military contractor Eddie Parker (Antony Starr) in another high-risk agreement that may or may not be honored.
Shot by Ed Wild in the mountainous landscapes of Alicante, Spain, the movie has a big, muscular look, with lots of expansive drone shots to isolate the characters in vast stretches of hostile territory. Without over-relying on the visual cliché of handheld agitation, the camerawork is nimble and exciting in both the central gunfight and the climactic clash at a dam designated as the safest extraction point. (Wild cites the late British conflict-zone photojournalist Tim Hetherington’s work as an inspiration.)
Ritchie and his regular editor James Herbert maintain a steady but propulsive pace over the two-hour duration, pushed along by a suspenseful score from Chris Benstead that makes evocative use of dissonant strings.
Gyllenhaal and Iraq-born Danish actor Salim are well matched in what’s at heart a two-man show, resulting in a solid, satisfying war thriller that spreads its attention evenly between hellish combat and resilient humanity. The sobering footnote that the Taliban seized back control of the Kabul government almost immediately after the withdrawal of American troops underscores the film’s welcome reluctance to glorify its subject matter.
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