GUY RITCHIE'S THE COVENANT ½
2023, R, 123 mins.
Jake Gyllenhaal as Sgt. John Kinley / Dar Salim as Ahmed / Antony Starr as Eddie Parker / Alexander Ludwig as Sergeant Declan O'Brady / Emily Beecham as Caroline Kinley / Jason Wong as Joshua 'JJ' Jung / Bobby Schofield as Steve Kersher / Sean Sagar as Charlie Crowther / Reza Diako as Haadee / Abbas Fasaei as PooyaDirected by Guy Ritchie / Written by Ritchie, Ivan Atkinson and Marn Davies
If it wasn't for the fact that his name is in the title, I would have been hard pressed to know that director Guy Ritchie was the man behind - to quote its full title - GUY RITCHIE'S THE COVENANT.
I mean that as a sincere compliment.
Ritchie's recent resume has been a mixed bag
affair. For every well oiled WRATH OF
MAN and THE GENTLEMEN there
have been hopelessly misguided efforts like his live action ALADDIN
remake for Disney or - more recently - his easily forgettable espionage
FORTUNE: RUSE DE GUERRE (yeah...who would remember that title?).
Regardless of quality, Ritchie has crafted a reputation for himself as a
exuberant cinematic stylist, with propulsive editing, robust action, and
flamboyantly tough talking personas. His latest in THE COVENANT
could not be anymore different to his usual fare in terms of it being a
war-themed action picture that chronicles U.S. forces dealing with the
Taliban in Afghanistan and, in turn, an unlikely relationship tale of two
soldiers that calls into question the definition of heroism, bravery, and
honor. Ritchie has definitely been prolific lately (this is his
fifth film in four years), but THE COVENANT is a welcome and refreshing
surprise, which allows him to dial down his aesthetic shenanigans into
something more restrained, mature and somber. This might be his most
accomplished work in quite some time.
Opening in 2018, THE COVENANT introduces us to Sergeant John Kinley (Jake Gyllenhaal, no stranger to the war picture - see JARHEAD), who's trying day by day to keep his squad safe and sound from the ruthless aggression of the Taliban in Afghanistan. His team is shattered when his interpreter is brutally killed during what should have been a routine road inspection that turned out to be a vehicle laced with an explosive device. Enter Ahmed (Dar Salim), who is assigned to John's squad as his new interpreter, and even though he seems to have an intimate knowledge of his nation and enemy, John seems to have trust issues with his new man. Attempting to locate and destroy a Taliban IED factory, John and company follow some tangible leads, but along the way are sneak attacked by waves of Taliban forces, which kills everyone except - you got it! - John and Ahmed, which forces them to form a quick alliance to escape with their lives. Unfortunately for John, he's shot multiple times and wounded, which places Ahmed in the position of protector, doing everything possible to ensure that he's never captured by the enemy. Amazingly, Ahmed does get his wounded comrade back into U.S. hands, but he and his family have become targeted by the Taliban and are forced to go into hiding. Recovering from his injuries and back home, John is riddled with guilt for what Ahmed did for him and his family, not to mention that his savoir is still stuck in Afghanistan without a way out. After tough negotiating with short sighted higher ups, John decides to go back into enemy territory to find his friend and his wife and get them out alive.
I appreciated the cerebral mind games that occurred between John and Ahmed in the early stages of THE COVENANT. The Sergeant is presented as a total man of unwavering commitment to his squad and mission in Afghanistan, and he does everything by the book. Having his first interpreter die throws a wrench into the machine of his tightly knit crew, and there's just something about his new recruit and outsider in Ahmed that rubs him the wrong way. It's clear that Ahmed is no weak link and can handle himself in just about any pressure cooker situation. Plus, his street smarts and outward willingness to help the Americans seem genuine, but John remains cautiously guarded about him. It soon appears that Ahmed is driven beyond the basic needs to help John and his forces and wants a way out of his country with his wife to start a new life. THE COVENANT remains continually absorbing when it hones in on the power dynamics between John and Ahmed, not to mention the former's growing understanding of the dire situation that his family is in and why it's so important to get out of Afghanistan for good.
The most gripping and intense scenes to be had here are easily when the film radically changes gears when John and his team reach a remote Taliban camp filled with weapons, which leads to the hellish ordeal being placed squarely on Ahmed's already burdened shoulders of having to nurse, protect, and get the mortally wounded John to safety. It's not just the Taliban being hot on their trail that's a danger, but also the inhospitable elements that threaten to kill both men in their attempts to stave off being captured. It's a testament to Ahmed as a man of duty bound honor that he elects to protect this man he barely knows with his own life in the balance, and all of the psychological rigors that this choice places on him. I think there would have been a real temptation on Ritchie's part to go big and sprawling with this war-themed story, but it's noteworthy that he doesn't give into that and instead opts to focus on the smaller-scaled human story of survival at the heart of the larger real life conflict. It makes for a more satisfyingly rough and rugged picture that feels authentically grounded.
THE COVENANT gets even more compelling when it shifts back to America and shows John - physically healed from his wounds, but not mentally - trying to acclimate back to a life of normalcy with his family while being constantly troubled with nagging worries that the man responsible for saving him has been on the run from the Taliban, which has dubbed him a traitor. This doesn't sit well with John and he reaches a boiling point when he feels that he must go back and get this guy and his wife out, but the bureaucratic red tape that he has to go through is a different type of war altogether. As far as his government is concerned, Ahmed was just a hired tool and was used for a purpose and then quickly discarded. This ties into the very real headlines from a few years ago of America hightailing it out of Afghanistan and leaving many of their native partners stuck there and facing possible death at the hands of a vengeful Taliban. THE COVENANT is not just another dime-a-dozen war film that props up American valor; it rightfully asks viewers to confront the harsh realities of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and how they withdrew and placed people back there in new kinds of dangers. The film offers no easy answers, but the fact that it poses challenging questions about war and the human toil associated with it is to its credit.
I do think, though, that the least interesting section of THE COVENANT occurs when John ventures back into enemy Taliban territory to locate his friend and his wife and get them out, and all while facing heavy bombardment from enemy forces (it's here where the film hits some obligatory war/action film beats). Still, the empowered acting tandem of the always dependable Gyllenhaal and Salim elevate this film on every level. Gyllenhaal nails John's internalized rage and post-traumatic stress with pitch perfect focus, whereas Salim plays the quieter and more introspective character, and one that finds himself in an impossible position to save a fellow man, but not because he needs a friend; he saves John because it's the right thing to do, which he reciprocates later. And let's not forget, obviously enough, Ritchie's finely attuned direction as well. THE COVENANT is as reliably technically proficient as anything he has done (the film's sense of environmental immersion and immediacy is stellar), but, again, he's not trying to aggressively or distractingly show off here with his usual hyper-stylized slickness. Far from it, he opts to get into the hearts of darkness of these two men and their respective displays of supreme courage that's set against the backdrop of America's war in Afghanistan and all of the troublesome quandaries contained within. This is a subdued and understated Ritchie film, which is ultimately what makes it simmer with surprising depth and potent emotional payoffs.
And because of that, Mr. Ritchie, I say...more, please. I love it when directors go outside of their comfort zones. This film is successful proof-positive of that.