GUY RITCHIE'S THE COVENANT Review: Jake Gyllenhaal, Dar Salim Elevate War Drama
As part of the traditions shared by multiple, old-school religions, the word “covenant” has a special, unique meaning.
It’s not just another, more elaborate word for contract, but suggests a deeper, more spiritual, ultimately sacred connection, an inviolable agreement between a deity and the people who’ve entrusted themselves, their beliefs, and their worldviews to that deity, as in, for example, the Covenant between Yahweh and the Hebrew people in the Old Testament (Christian Bible) or the followers of Jesus in the New Testament (same), guaranteeing if not their personal safety in this world, then salvation or its equivalent in the next.
In writer-director Guy Ritchie’s (Sherlock, Snatch, Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels) latest film, the surprisingly sober, serious-minded Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant (formerly The Interpreter, hereinafter The Covenant for the sake of brevity), the word doesn’t necessarily have a spiritual connotation. Instead, it’s meant to convey the blood bond or oath between two men, Sergeant John Kinley (Jake Gyllenhaal), an American soldier serving his fourth and last tour of duty in Afghanistan circa 2018, and his chief interpreter, Ahmed (Dar Salim).
One man, Ahmed, saves the other, Kinley, under the direst of wartime circumstances, creating a debt that Kinley, a man who consciously defines himself through the concepts of duty, obligation, and honor, can’t refuse regardless of his personal safety or the people he’s left behind.
That particular plot point, however, doesn’t happen right away. It unfolds closer to a mid-point in a film that follows Kinley, a stoic, reserved sort eager to finish his last tour of duty and return home to the United States and his wife, Caroline (Emily Beecham), relatively unscathed.
The first onscreen mission goes unpredictably awry, leaving Kinley and the men under his command short one Afghani interpreter. At first reluctant to hire Ahmed (Dar Salim), a local mechanic with an anti-authoritarian streak matched only by a fierce desire to escape the inevitable return of the Taliban to control of Afghanistan when the U.S. and its remaining allies depart, Kinley eventually comes around to accepting the resourceful Ahmed as an integral part of the squad.
While Ahmed proves keen in and out of the battlefield, correctly reading situations and more importantly, the locals, Kinley and his squad push to find and eliminate a makeshift, Taliban-run IED factory. It takes all of Kinley and Ahmed’s individual and collective willpower, not to mention (but we’ll mention it here, anyway) their individual and collective skills with firearms, to escape an ambush.
Injured in the melee, Kinley has no choice but to rely on Ahmed to save him. With Kinley immobilized, unable to defend himself, and hidden to locals as needed, Ahmed has to navigate multiple dangers to return Kinley to Bagram Air Base.
Seen from a slightly cynical point-of-view, Ahmed saving Kinley and Kinley, understandably feeling an obligation to balance the debt, bringing Ahmed and his wife to the United States under a Special Immigrant Visa promised to interpreters and their families, gives The Covenant an easily understandable emotional hook that’s difficult to question or criticize from the outside looking in. It certainly helps that The Covenant isn’t based on a particular set of real-world facts involving an unsanctioned rescue mission.
If it had been, those facts that could have been easily manipulated to push a specific political agenda. For example, those facts could have been twisted or bent to generate sympathy from moviegoers for Ahmed's plight. It works better, in some sense "truer," as a fictional extrapolation of widely reported news stories after the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban in the summer of 2021.
Even then, though, there’s still plenty of room for a different kind of criticism, some of it certainly deserved, for the stateside bureaucratic red tape that held up numerous Special Immigrant Visas weeks, months or even longer, increasing the direct, existential danger to the Afghan interpreters and their families still in Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover. The inept bureaucracies in question prove to be almost as dangerous to Ahmed as the Taliban, setting up a second-half rescue mission that, like so many of the fantastical MIA (missing in action) action films of the ‘80s and early ‘90s.
Those films, some of them starring Chuck Norris or Sylvester Stallone, allowed American audiences to assuage any residual guilt felt over the American soldiers and Vietnamese sympathizers left behind after the conclusion of another failed U.S. war and occupation.
The Covenant isn’t particularly nuanced or subtle in exploring the consequences of U,S, imperialism (a “good war” started in the aftermath of 9/11 became a grinding, exhausting, two-decade-long occupation), but it excels elsewhere, in keeping the focus on two men from different countries, cultures, and religious beliefs who ultimately forge an unbreakable bond that saves them both, albeit in not entirely the same manner. It’s as rousing a personal story set against the backdrop of an unwinnable war as a film can be without getting into the messy, contradictory geopolitics of the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, the inevitable withdrawal of U.S. troops, and the almost immediate return of the Taliban to power.
Known primarily for an over-busy, hyperkinetic visual style, bro-dude humor, and a facile, glib approach to whatever material he’s bringing to the big screen, Ritchie does almost the exact opposite here, foregoing attention-calling camera tricks or editing and telling Kinley and Ahmed’s story as straightforwardly and unobtrusively as possible. It’s a more than welcome break from Ritchie’s usual in-your-face style and suggests that Ritchie, just months away from turning 55, has finally matured as a filmmaker.
Guy Ritchie's The Covenant opens Friday, April 21, only in movie theaters.
Guy Ritchie's The Covenant
- Guy Ritchie
- Ivan Atkinson
- Marn Davies
- Guy Ritchie
- Jake Gyllenhaal
- Alexander Ludwig
- Antony Starr