I often see concerns over when is the right time to see films dealing with particular subjects. Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant seems to be facing the question of whether or not audiences really need a serious war film concerning the War in Afghanistan. For one thing, it’s not as though the comedic takes of late have really left a mark. More importantly, no time should be ideal for this kind of thing in general. What I’m left with here is a film that can be judged on its merit, and the fortunate news is that The Covenant is quite good, one of Ritchie’s best films in a good while. Outside of universal themes involving friendship, bonding, and bravery, I can’t say the Brit filmmaker is doing much to enlighten me on how he feels about the politics of it all, but his efforts to deliver a strong feature pay off.
Based on what one can only assume are highly redacted events reconfigured just enough to fit for a narrative feature film, the film provides a brief bit of context surrounding the War in Afghanistan. Nearly 200,000 American troops have been deployed, and tens of thousands of Afghans and Arabs have been hired as interpreters in exchange for the promise of a visa to enter America. This story is set in 2018. Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Sergeant John Kinley. He recruits a new interpreter, Ahmed (Dar Salim), who quickly establishes himself as quite capable but willing to challenge authority if something doesn’t seem right.
Part of what makes the early stages of this film effective are the subtleties brought out by Gyllenhaal and Salim. They don’t have to say a lot for anyone to pick up on what kind of people they are. Stern, confident, and more than likely willing to kill if it means protecting others, these guys bring a lot in small glances. I can’t speak to the accuracies of yet another military film, but there’s a shorthand on display that gets to the point when it comes to characterization.
This makes it all the more affecting when arriving at the heart of the movie. While ads emphasize the fallout of an event that takes place, it’s important to note that a good portion of the film focuses on Ahmed’s efforts to keep Kinley out of harm’s way, following an ambush leaving the two men stranded, 100 clicks away from the nearest base, with Taliban soldiers constantly on the lookout. Kinely is relegated to precious cargo, and it truly becomes Salim’s time to shine as Ahmed. The Iraqi-born Danish actor exudes the screen authority you would want from any movie star. Watching his physicality and emotional state during this journey back to base camp is excellently handled.
The back portion of The Covenant follows a logical path. Having been saved by a man who put everything on the line, Kinley can’t feel right in the comfort of his home country, knowing the man who saved him is on the Taliban’s most wanted list. One can point to plot contrivances regarding the steps taken to place Kinley back in Afghanistan, what it may be trying to say about American exceptionalism, or whatever else there is to be thrown at this film. However, based on what’s on screen and the feature’s tone, I see far too much care going into the humanity of it all, let alone the kinetic action on display, which I’ll get to. Not unlike Rod Lurie’s excellent and underseen 2020 war film, The Outpost, the intensity of the battles may be a huge selling point, but the work is done to make it matter without becoming overwrought in an effort to speak to some greater significance.
Mileage may vary on the tolerance of films even approaching this subject matter, but the notion of heroism is explored well here, let alone the psychological turmoil involving survivor’s guilt. There may not be much raw interrogation of these characters that serve as a microcosm of America’s involvement with Afghanistan, but I’m sure others can read into that more than what I’m seeing here. And regardless of what I see in the grand politics of it all, one cannot deny what this film is getting at when it comes to showing displays of courage and other values that should not be overlooked when it comes to honoring those who have found themselves in impossible situations that they are not responsible for.
To this point, it’s important to look at Ritchie’s technique. Known for his flashier directorial choices, evidenced in the variety of films he’s made, from Snatch to Sherlock Holmes to The Gentleman, I was curious what he was doing in something so different. One can surmise it was a choice made as a challenge to himself, and the results are impressive. Ritchie does not necessarily hold back on his ambitious filmmaking choices, but they do feel calibrated to suit the movie he is making. As a result, editing choices and more do what’s needed to create a visual representation of two men who suffer in different ways throughout this film.
On top of that, there are a fair share of shootouts in The Covenant, and they look really good. Whether or not one wants to go through the motions of stating how anti-war this film may be, there’s far too much polish in these action sequences to ever make me less than excited to watch these particular men get the job done. There’s an intensity in place, properly staged shootouts, and seemingly endless Taliban soldiers coming at our leads (which does actually fit in with ideas commenting on this war). Suppose one wants to look over the solid character work being done. In that case, they will certainly get what they need from the cinematic warfare on screen.
As of now, Guy Ritchie is two for two in 2023. His long-delayed Operation Fortune: Ruse de guerre was a fun, splashy spy comedy, and now there’s The Covenant, which shows him actually pushing himself into new and interesting territory. Working with two actors putting all they have into it, the loyalty forged through unintended struggles in the desert rings very true. It makes for a film that has an idea of what it can do, utilizing the War in Afghanistan as a backdrop, and mines all it can out of that context for the sake of a serious-minded movie with a good eye for action.