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THE COVENANT (2023)
Image: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc.

Film

Guy Ritchie Goes to War with the Moving, if Flawed, The Covenant

The director, coming off a run of successful action comedies, does something very different with Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant, a tale of friendship in the war in Afghanistan.

The Covenant Review

After a recent run of success with comedic action thrillers that starred Jason Stratham, director Guy Ritchie has made a film that’s very different, although not necessarily better. 

The Covenant, styled in all marketing as Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant, is an earnest Afghanistan war movie, about an American soldier going to nearly superhuman lengths to rescue the man who had been his interpreter, after promises of a U.S. visa fail to materialize. 

It’s a competently made film, buoyed by strong action sequences and superlative performances by Jake Gyllenhaal and Dar Salim. It tells a fine story with significant emotional stakes, even if it doesn’t show us much that we haven’t seen in war movies before. It also doesn’t have much to say about the war in which it is set. 

Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant is not based on any true story – It would probably be pretty famous if it were. It begins in around 2017 when Sergeant John Kinley (Jake Gyllenhaal) is on a deployment to Afghanistan as part of the seemingly never-ending war against the Taliban. He’s paired with an Afghan interpreter named Ahmed (Dar Salim), who earns his trust. 

After Ahmed goes to extraordinary lengths to save Kinley’s life, the wounded American soldier returns to the U.S. Faced with bureaucratic brick walls that prevent Ahmed from getting that promised visa, Kinley decides to take extraordinary lengths to repay a debt to the man who saved his life. 

The Covenant
Image: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc.

The third act is essentially the plot of Rambo: First Blood Part II as well as several of his knockoffs- He returns to Afghanistan on his own — albeit with an assist from a private security company — to rescue his friend. Ironically, Rambo III had Rambo headed to Afghanistan, although he was on the side of the guys, the forerunners of the Taliban, who are the bad guys here. 

Indeed, the Taliban are presented less as jihadists than gangsters, seemingly obsessed with revenge, bounties, and executing snitches and informants. 

However, the film is almost entirely allergic to politics, and certainly not interested in interrogating anything about the Afghanistan War or especially the role of private military contractors in it (a contractor, similar to Blackwater, is treated almost entirely positively.) It’s not exactly pure jingoism either, though. Gyllenhaal gets a couple of lines about the war effort seeming futile, and the film’s biggest stand is that those Afghan interpreters were done dirty by the military’s inefficient bureaucracy. 

There’s never much doubt about how things are ending, while one moment in the end, in particular, is something of a deus ex machina

Jake Gyllenhaal, early in his career, starred in Sam Mendes’ Jarhead, a war movie that was set almost entirely before the war even started, although this time, he gets to actually fight the war. It’s a strong performance, equaled by that of Dar Salim, who gets to take center stage for a big portion of the film. 

The Covenant
Image: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc.

There still hasn’t been a great feature movie about the Afghanistan war, although Lone Survivor, 12 Strong, and The Outpost all have their moments. 

Arriving just six weeks after Operation Fortune, Ritchie’s much-delayed but still very enjoyable action movie, The Covenant represents a massive departure from the filmmaker’s recent work- it’s missing the cheeky tone, as well as his usual company of actors, led by Stratham. 

The film is flawed, but Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant represents an admirable risk. 

Written By

Stephen Silver is a journalist and film critic based in the Philadelphia area. He is the co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle and a Rotten Tomatoes-listed critic since 2008, and his work has appeared in New York Press, Philly Voice, The Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Tablet, The Times of Israel, and RogerEbert.com. In 2009, he became the first American journalist to interview both a sitting FCC chairman and a sitting host of "Jeopardy" on the same day.

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