Were it not for the fact that his name is in the title, you would be hard pressed to guess that Guy Ritchie's The Covenant
was even made by the man. The filmmaker has long excelled at visually busy crime caper comedies overflowing with snarky wit, and while he has ventured out of his comfort zone before, this is still far removed from anything he has ever done. It's also probably his best film in a while.
Rather than focus on visual flare and fast-paced action (though those elements do show up once in a while, proving he hasn't completely left his wheelhouse), this is a solemn human drama that is quietly effective. Rather than suave criminals and spies, his topic this time around is the recent war in the Middle East and themes of sacrifice and brotherhood. The film is a fictional story, but feels like it could have been lifted from the headlines, and most likely real events did play out similar to it. The focus here is on Afghans who aided the American military, usually as interpreters, and despite being promised safety and Visas for their efforts, were often forgotten and left behind due to legal red tape.
Jake Gyllenhaal has one of the leads here as Sgt. John Kinley, who leads a small team of soldiers that seek out explosive devices. It's 2018, and Kinley by this point knows that the war is likely to never truly be won, but he still gives it his all so that he can one day come home to California where his family is waiting for him. After he loses his Afghan interpreter in a bomb blast, John needs to select a new one, and chooses a local mechanic by the name of Ahmed Abdullah (Dar Salim). Ahmed has a family of his own, with a wife and a new baby, and is only helping the Americans because the Taliban killed his son. He desperately needs the money, as well as safe passage for him and his family into the U.S., since helping the Americans automatically puts a target on his back in his home country.
While the idea of two men bonding despite their differences on the field of battle is nothing new, both Gyllenhaal and Salim deliver electrifying performances here, and are completely believable as men who are world-weary for different reasons, yet have more in common than they initially think. They slowly learn to trust one another, and that trust is pushed to the extreme when Kinley's squad is ambushed, with only John and Ahmed surviving, and with John being mortally wounded in the process. This is the most thrilling part of The Covenant
, as we watch Ahmed try various means to carry his fallen ally across the desert to safety. He is a wanted man, and has no idea who he can trust, but he is determined to get his friend to safety, even though he knows he likely will not be safe himself.
After the harrowing moments of survival and perseverance, the movie loses steam shortly when John is allowed to come home, and becomes enraged with the system that is buried with red tape. He wants to get Ahmed and his family a Visa so that they can come to America, but the process is so complex that John becomes outraged. He soon gets a chance to go on his own mission to return to Afghanistan and track Ahmed and his wife down, so that he can bring them back with him. Here, the film finds itself again, and it concludes with some spectacular action sequences. The moments depicting the man under fire and making brave journeys of survival are when the film is the most alive. Luckily, Ritchie understands this, and emphasizes these moments at every turn.
This is the kind of film that makes you feel like you are experiencing the intensity, the anger, and the hardships that the two leads endure throughout, creating a film that is all at once engaging and raw. While the two lead performances certainly do help sell the emotion, it's the script (co-written by Ritchie) and his direction that adds to the realism of the situation as it unfolds. It is this style that he brings that makes this somewhat familiar material seem fresh once again. There is also a wonderful supporting cast on display, though I do wish that the wives of both men had larger roles to play in the grand scheme of things, as they mainly exist to give support and worry about their husbands. Still, the power of the film cannot be denied, and it's evident for almost its entire two hour run time.
Guy Ritchie's The Covenant
may not be what you expect from the filmmaker, but perhaps it's for the best that he left his usual tricks at home this time around, and he just focused on giving us an intense, straight-forward war drama that sticks with you long after it's over.
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