How much you will enjoy Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant will dictated by your expectations. If you are looking for a hard-hitting, well-made drama, you’ll end up disappointed. But, if you temper what Ritchie and star Jake Gyllenhaal are delivering, you should be pleasantly surprised with the result.
Gyllenhaal stars as Sergeant John Kinley, a hardened US Army leader tasked with finding Taliban bomb factories in Afghanistan during the late days of the war. Following the death of the group’s previous interpreter, Kinley selects Ahmed (Dar Salim) as his replacement. Despite some rocky beginnings, Ahmed proves his worth by avoiding an ambush during a mission. When a follow up mission goes awry, Ahmed saves John’s life and brings him back to the safety of the US base.
Safely back at home, John is wracked with guilt over Ahmed’s commitment to save his life. Knowing Ahmed is being hunted by the Taliban and with the wheels of bureaucracy moving in slow motion, John takes drastic steps to ensure the survival and safety of Ahmed and his family.
For a film this thick with potential political, the script completely avoids any actual political stance. Ritchie and his fellow screenwriters Ivan Atkinson and Marn Davies touch on the idea of American indifference to local interpreters, but sidesteps actually caring about it in any way. The idea of US involvement in Afghanistan is similarly indifferent. This creates a strange detachment from any sort of political intrigue, but also narrows the focus to the baser action elements.
Even the idea of friendship and comradery is half-addressed. It doesn’t matter why Ahmed goes to the steps he does in order to save John. It’s more about the action than the reasoning. When held to any amount of scrutiny, the film falls apart. This is not a film to overanalyze. In the words of the film Tenet, don’t try to understand it, just feel it.
It takes Gyllenhaal a bit to get going, but his characterization is not one of flash, but of control. His early scenes in Afghanistan show a man who is tired of the monotony of his work, but is also highly competent. As the film progresses, that control starts to spin, which allows the actor to have his signature unhinged mania. Those bits are well-earned and saved for when they are needed. A late-film monologue shows Gyllenhaal at his most raw and vulnerable.
Salim is the real revelation. Ahmed is given the depth and scope that John Kinley is deprived. Salim exudes goodness but with a willingness to plunge into the necessary depths to get the necessary job done. His impressive physicality is also on full display. Salim walks away with every scene he is in, which is probably the reason the film is as effective as it is.
Anthony Starr is always nice to see, but he is barely in the film. Emily Beecham plays John’s wife, who I was fully expecting to be a stock wet blanket, but the film gives her character a shocking amount of refreshing and unexpected empathy.
Ritchie and Gyllenhaal are by no means known for their subtlety, but the film is radiating with repressed energy. The result is an unnatural, but necessary suppression of every terrible impulse both the director and actor usually expresses. The lack of flash actually serves the film well. The action is clean, but not overly bloody. The body count is large, but the gore is shockingly absent. The film is more notable for what it doesn’t do than what it actually achieves.
By no means revolutionary, Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant is a B-movie made with surprising quality and without huge mistakes. If you expect a lot, you might be disappointed. If you lower your expectations, you might be surprised with what is delivered. I certainly was.
Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant opens in theaters on Friday, April 21st
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