‘The Covenant’ Review: Guy Ritchie Gets Serious

The man from H.A.T.F.I.E.L.D. does something new with this compelling take on the Afghan war and its fraught legacy, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Dar Salim.
(L to R) Dar Salim as Ahmed, Jason Wong as Joshua "JJ Jung", Jake Gyllenhaal as Sgt. John Kinley, Christian Ochoa as Eduardo "Chow Chow" Lopez, and Rhys Yates as Tom "Tom Cat" Hancock in THE COVENANT, directed by Guy Ritchie, a Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures film. Credit: Christopher Raphael / Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures © 2023 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.
"The Covenant"
Christopher Raphael / Metro Gold

The decision to re-title “The Interpreter” to “Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant” is an odd one, at least on the surface. For 25 years, the filmmaker’s forte has been whiz-bang action-crime movies like “Snatch,” “RocknRolla,” and the recently released “Operation Fortune,” in which his (usually English) characters rattle off banter like actors in an improv warm-up game.

“The Covenant,” on the other hand, is arguably the director’s first foray into purely dramatic territory, the kind that has thus far occupied the margins of his work. It’s an Afghanistan war film about duty and guilt, focused on a U.S. soldier’s debt to his Afghan interpreter. The premise is hardly “Ritchie-esque” upon first glance, with a straightforward intensity that conceals no surprise tonal oscillations. However, it remains firmly within Ritchie’s stylistic wheelhouse — his command of the swiftly moving camera, and its focus on violent masculine subjects, are intact — while proving to be intense and effective as a straightforward war drama. It might even lead one to ask why hasn’t been making “serious” cinema this whole time.

Set in 2018 — nearly two decades into America’s occupation of Afghanistan — “The Covenant” opens as most Ritchie movies do, with an eclectic group of oddly nicknamed fellas (Army grunts with callsigns like Jizzy, J.J., Jack-Jack, and Chow-Chow) mucking about with firearms. Only this time, their quips are immediately offset by a lethal tension at a military checkpoint, where their inspection goes horribly awry, killing their local translator (as well as a member of their ranks, though in the film’s rare moment of opacity, it’s hard to tell exactly who).

Months later, their headstrong leader, Sgt. John Kinley (Jake Gyllenhaal), reluctantly agrees to a replacement interpreter, in the form of the disciplined but equally hard-headed Ahmed (Dar Salim). Ahmed is quick to correct Kinley on the pronunciation of his name, though this doesn’t deter Kinley’s stern condescension — a byproduct of his no-nonsense approach. His mission is to find and “neutralize” as many local Taliban weapons facilities as possible, no matter what hurdles present themselves. It’s his way or the highway, but Ahmed’s own motives for signing up, and his roguish methods of extracting information, make him an uneasy partner for the more by-the-book Kinley (albeit one who gets results).

Right from its opening text, “The Covenant” — which Ritchie co-wrote alongside Ivan Atkinson and Marn Davies — positions its premise as a failure of American policy. It not only references the many Afghan interpreters promised U.S. visas and asylum in exchange for their help (many of whom remain in limbo to this day), but its timeline, which creeps up on America’s disastrous 2021 withdrawal from Afghanistan and the subsequent Taliban takeover, imbues both its big-picture actions and Kinley’s various missions with a fatalistic streak. And yet, each individual operation rests on a knife’s edge, between encroaching enemy forces, and Ahmed navigating tricky situations via a learned transactionalism, as a local who was once in business with the Taliban, rather than following Kinley’s strictly procedural approach.

“The Covenant”MGM, STX Films

Kinley and Ahmed are both men forged in anger and loss, and they frequently butt heads. However, the film’s overarching structure affords only Kinley a complete emotional exploration. This is despite the fact that Ahmed spends much of the second act on a one-man rescue mission, skillfully defending an injured Kinley from dangerous scenarios over several days (which Ritchie practically films through hellfire). Kinley’s subsequent discharge and return home leave him wracked with guilt, as “The Covenant” transforms into a visa drama, following the sergeant’s fraught attempts to simply get a straight answer over the phone about why Ahmed hasn’t been granted immigrant status; not since one-location thrillers like “Buried” and “Locke” have phone calls felt so urgent. Eventually, Kinley decides to take action and extract Ahmed and his family from Afghanistan himself before the Taliban can track him down, resulting in a razor-wire final act.

“The Covenant” exists not only in the shadow of American wars, but of American war cinema, whether or not it means to. While it in some ways tries to take an apolitical stance — which is to say, it remains affixed to the ground-level goings on, rather than the bigger picture of war — its imagery and narrative are never subversive enough to avoid the ensuing complications inherent to the genre. When a film inserts itself into a still-living cinematic lineage, it absorbs existing tropes and expectations until it intentionally chooses not to. For instance, the camera grants nuance and personhood only to those on one side of the conflict; for an Afghan character to be fully human, they must first fight for America. The film may be set against the backdrop of larger American failings, but its story beats are mostly concerned with successful or near-successful operations, which can’t help but clash with the aforementioned fatalism of the initial premise. War can’t be futile when it so frequently succeeds.

However, the movie’s approach to Kinley and Ahmed’s story makes it incrementally more humanistic than its peers. Tales of re-deployment are hardly new to America’s post-9/11 cultural milieu, but rather than a soldier returning to the Middle East as a matter of either policy (“Stop-Loss”) or obsession (“The Hurt Locker”), Kinley’s decision to return to the battlefield, that too as a civilian, is largely altruistic. Kinley’s ideology — concerning what people owe each other as human beings — is eventually severed from anything resembling militarism so the third act can unfold (albeit with a private security firm in tow, without much scrutiny therein).

Where “The Covenant” most shines is in the riveting intensity of both its performances and its action. Gyllenhaal’s work feels in conversation with some of his previous war films, like “Jarhead” and “Brothers,” especially when he returns home to his wife and kids and creates a sleepless, tension-filled household each time he reflects on the conflict. However, unlike the genre’s tried and true PTSD stories, what keeps Kinley up at night isn’t war’s physical horrors, but its ethical ones, and the betrayal to which he was made an accomplice. Gyllenhaal’s unblinking stares and sudden outbursts feel chillingly familiar, but rather than being haunted by his actions, he’s haunted by inaction and an all-too-common betrayal. The emotional scars he carries aren’t really about himself. For a while, “The Covenant” practically represents the ego death of the American war drama, despite its proclivity for glossing over America’s place in the war.

The film’s success is aided all the more by the humanity and quiet intelligence Salim brings to Ahmed. Ritchie taps into the festering rage the Iraqi-born actor brought to his 2017 Danish revenger thriller “Darkland,” and even though the specifics of Ahmed’s are reduced to mere passing mentions, it’s a highly-pressurized state of being that informs Ahmed’s calculated approach to the conflict, even when he snaps. The role, while unfortunately two-dimensional on paper, is brought to life through Salim’s controlled demolitions of the self, and his controlled eviscerations of enemy forces in moments that demand both physical and emotional anguish. These scenes come the closest to feeling borrowed from Ritchie’s other, more spy or gangster-centric works, albeit without winking. The action, most often, plays like principled brutality, even when those principles feel half-baked.

All the while, Ritchie sprinkles overt flourishes atop what could have otherwise been a bog-standard action flick. Fittingly, Ahmed clarifies numerous times that he isn’t a translator, but an interpreter — not someone who captures the literal, but rather, conveys its essential meaning. “The Covenant” practically embodies this approach to war via its movement, with the camera pushing inward and outward almost violently, in moments of self-reflection or intense isolation, distilling the larger conflict into something intimate. In action scenes, sounds always whiz and rocket by, as if the carnage is too quick for the ear or brain to process, and there’s an almost phantasmagorical streak to some of the depictions of wanton barbarism, cultural warts and all.

Some twenty years into Hollywood’s modern Middle Eastern war films, it becomes increasingly difficult to excuse continued flaws, like the reduction of entire peoples purely to the context of their invaders, and their own allegiances therein. However, Ritchie’s entry into the genre breathes stylistic life and bombast into what hasn’t felt like a cinematic event in over a decade. He earns having his name appear alongside the title.

Grade: B

MGM and STX Films will release “Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant” in theaters on Friday, April 21.

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