“Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant”

Director Guy Ritchie is no stranger to crafting exciting action films, but his latest project is quite different than his previous work. The narrative is linear, there aren’t any montages, and the story isn’t about criminals, gangsters, or Brits. Fans of Ritchie will absolutely still recognize his visual style (hello, overhead shots) and testosterone-fueled themes, but “The Covenant” is a more dramatic, mature, and restrained work from the legendary director.

Set during the war in Afghanistan in 2018, the film tells the story of U.S. Army sergeant John Kinley (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his local Afghan interpreter, Ahmed (Dar Salim). Called a traitor by his people for helping the Americans, Ahmed has volunteered to seek revenge against the Taliban that killed his son. He has also been promised visas for his service so his family can flee to safety in America. After a lethal ambush in the desert, Kinley is gravely injured by enemy fire. With his platoon gone, Ahmed refuses to leave a fellow soldier behind to die, so he drags Kinley through the mountainous terrain in order to get him back to the base for medical help.

The film tells the story of their 100 mile journey, but then pivots to Kinley’s return to the United States. It’s months after he gets home that Kinley learns Ahmed and his family were not given safe passage as promised and, as a way to repay the debt he owes his friend, he returns to Afghanistan to retrieve them. It won’t be easy, because Ahmed has been placed at the top of the Taliban’s most wanted hit list.

It’s a meaningful story of honor and brotherhood wrapped up in an intense wartime thriller. The story is told in three major acts, from the early days Ahmed and Kinley spent chasing IEDs, to their dangerous journey, to the red tape of getting a man what he’s owed. There are plenty of thrilling acting sequences throughout, and they will keep you on the edge of your seat.

Ritchie has an extraordinary sense of timing and instincts for shooting action scenes, and the brutal, graphic wartime violence puts you in the be-or-be-killed survival mind of a front line solider. The director’s visual storytelling is terrific here, as he switches between handheld shots with uneven movements to dizzying aerial shots to sweeping tracking shots seamlessly within one action scene. It creates a greater sense of immediacy and danger, expressing the gravity of the situation at hand.

Some of the scenes are so distressing that I found my heart pounding throughout, and Ritchie’s use of harsh close-ups adds to the intensity. There’s a lot of cat-and-mouse content that adds to the tension, but it doesn’t feel gimmicky because this is a film that is unafraid to kill off characters at any time (so don’t get too attached to anyone).

Gyllenhaal and Salim make a dynamic onscreen duo, and both men have a natural chemistry that is the highlight of the film. Salim’s performance is dynamic and genuine, and Gyllenhaal proves yet again that he’s a formidable leading man. He’s in his natural habitat here, playing a rugged everyman with a non-threatening masculinity that gives him a broad, universal appeal. The performances from the supporting cast are also top-notch.

The story is one of integrity, loyalty, and respect, and these men have an incredible amount of honor. Ahmed and Kinley are forced to make tough decisions, but they never shy away from doing the right thing, even when it’s the harder option. These guys are still combat killers and trained soldiers, but their friendship takes center stage. This is such a great story of brotherhood that you’ll wish it was true (sorry folks, this is a work of fiction).

The film only makes a couple of missteps, and there are two major things that bothered me. First, the alpha male dialogue among the soldiers is openly homophobic. It’s laughed off and never challenged. I found this to be a bit problematic, but the way these guys talk is also likely accurate and authentic. Second, the grand finale shootout feels a bit like military propaganda, where the brawny American saviors must step in and become the heroes. It’s a sequence that’s thrilling, but feels stuffed in as a way to appease the hyper-patriotic “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” crowd.

But here’s where it gets interesting: the film is also highly critical of the U.S. government and the heads of the military. The soldiers may have honor, but those at a higher level do not. The film offers a scathing criticism that applies to the many ways the U.S. abandons its veterans too, from dismissing allegations of sexual assault, making it difficult to obtain proper healthcare, crafting vague promises, and flat-out lying. It’s a profound theme that may be lost on the majority of audiences (but I hope not).

“The Covenant” is an extremely well made wartime action film, and those looking for a thrill will find it. Go and enjoy the entertainment value, but don’t lose sight of the small, emotional story that’s at the heart of it all.

By: Louisa Moore

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