Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant
2023, R, 123 min. Directed by Guy Ritchie. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Dar Salim, Alexander Ludwig, Antony Starr, Jason Wong.
REVIEWED By Dex Wesley Parra, Fri., April 21, 2023
How soon after a military operation gone awry can Hollywood depict it on the big screen? With Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant, his first conventional war film, the answer seems to be: as soon as the event begins to fade from public consciousness, if not sooner.
The latest Guy Ritchie action flick (coming out weeks after his box-office flop Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre) takes place in 2018, but the subject matter demands a 2021 frame of reference. Remember the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, the fall of the Afghan government, and the ensuing Taliban takeover? Ritchie’s picture, which began filming in 2022, won’t let you forget.
Guy Ritchie's The Covenant opens to the fitting tune of America’s 1971 hit “A Horse With No Name” as a drone shot of the Afghanistan hillside accompanies a refresher, of sorts. Title cards blanket the screen, informing viewers in a slapdash rundown of the American invasion of Afghanistan. Like most of the following narrative, broad strokes take precedent over the details.
After a truck explosion kills his translator, Master Sergeant John Kinley (a subtly menacing Gyllenhaal) finds a replacement in a U.S.-trained Afghani, Ahmed (Salim, a quiet powerhouse). Their relationship, which begins with hostility partly thanks to Ahmed withholding disclosure of his one-time allegiance to the Taliban, grounds the entire film as they slowly form a bulletproof bond. Even though it takes a drawn out exposition and a visceral loss of life to get there, the army of two that forms out of a devastating ambush, sending them on a heart-pounding cat-and-mouse standoff with the Taliban, serves as a testament to the power of brotherhood borne of shared trauma.
For a writer/director known for babbling spy thrillers, The Covenant works best when the two leads are forced to be silent lest they tip off prowling combatants. That comes in the Warriors-esque second act, brimming with no-holds-barred intensity. Some true-to-form editing techniques (choppy cuts, sudden slow motion, the works), a suspenseful violin soundscape, and dizzying tracking shots advance the plot swiftly along. Then, act two ends. All signs indicate the movie should be over, too, but fatally, it isn’t.
After a grueling mission to get back in one piece, the last thing an exhausted moviegoer wants to see is a title card that reads, “Day 01.” And yet. From there, the film splits into a second story altogether (and likely the one Ritchie cares more about). It’s certainly the more timely of the two, as it takes a strong stance against the failure to obtain visas for the thousands of Afghani interpreters left behind post-departure, but the pacing suffers immensely.
Time and time again, Ritchie proves to be an effective action director. When it comes to writing the picture, less so, and The Covenant stands as another reminder of that sturdy dichotomy.