Synopsis: During the war in Afghanistan, a local interpreter risks his own life to carry an injured sergeant across miles of grueling terrain
Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Dar Salim, Antony Starr, Alexander Ludwig, Bobby Schofield, Emily Beecham, Jonny Lee Miller
Director: Guy Ritchie
Running Length: 123 minutes
TMMM Score: (6.5/10)
Review: From the beginning, director Guy Ritchie has brought a style to his films that make them, if not instantly recognizable, at least easy enough to place on the same shelf. All of the movies the British-born filmmaker has under his belt have a swagger, even the duds like Swept Away and King Arthur: Legend of the Sword and the odd choices like his helming of a live-action adaptation of Disney’s musical Aladdin. It’s in movies I find exemplary in style, like The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Wrath of Man, where he is at the peak of his game – yet these are the titles that audiences didn’t fully show up for. It boggles my mind. And it appears to send Ritchie off in other directions looking for his next projects instead of following his instincts and staying the course.
Already in 2023, Ritchie has been represented in the blink-and-you-missed-it espionage comedy Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre, and he’s following it up a little over a month later with The Covenant. Whoops, sorry. Make that Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant. I’m unsure what makes the film unique enough for the director to put his name before the title. Considering it was initially set to be called The Interpreter, and both titles are so cookie-cutter, I suppose throwing in Ritchie’s name at least helps it stand out from the crowd somehow.
Watching the film is like riding on a rocky road in a Jeep constantly shifting gears. There’s always forward momentum (it’s a Guy Ritchie film, after all), but it can be a herky-jerky trip from the beginning to the end. Opening with the most tremendous data dump of names since The New Mickey Mouse Club, we’re introduced to U.S. Army Sergeant John Kinley (Jake Gyllenhaal, Prisoners) and his platoon of men during the War in Afghanistan. They all have nicknames, and in their fatigues, they all look alike, so good luck remembering who any of them are at the start. It’s one thing for a war film to begin amid chaos, that is expected, but it’s another to just kick a viewer into a world with so little context as to the what, where, and why of it all.
In this first stretch, the film struggles to find an identity that differentiates it from other jarhead films. During this time, we watch the all-business Kinley take on a new interpreter, Ahmed (Dar Salim, Exodus: Gods and Kings), and see how Ahmed’s experience on the fringe of Afghan society and skirting close to the Taliban makes him a great asset to the American troops. Kinley doesn’t feel that benefit at first, and the mistrusting walls he has built up don’t come down quickly. As the platoon embarks on a specialized mission that could be a significant victory for the US, they are ambushed, leaving Ahmed and an injured Kinley to evade the Taliban in a suspenseful journey across miles of treacherous country.
After a rough 20 minutes in the beginning, Ritchie’s film is kickstarted by a genuinely nail-biting sequence that sets the second act into motion. In this middle passage, we see the mature director Ritchie has become over the years. Following Ahmed’s harrowing trek to bring Kinley home becomes grueling but for all the right reasons. In what could be a breakthrough role, Danish actor Salim handily steals the movie dramatically from Gyllenhaal (who chews a little too hard on the scenery for most of the film) and makes for a believable action star. I hope Hollywood takes note and thinks outside the box when casting him in the future.
I’m purposefully leaving out a big part of the film in the last 45 minutes because I think it’s a tad bit of a spoiler. Previews and some marketing may have let that cat out of the bag, but in case they haven’t, I’ll let you find out what happens after Ahmed and Kinley traverse the hunters the Taliban sent out looking for them. It’s the weaker portion of the film because it adds so many other factors to the mix, like unsteady performances (and accents) from Jonny Lee Miller as Kinley’s commanding officer and Antony Starr as a soldier-for-hire Kinley teams up with. I’m not sure I fully understood the point of Alexander Ludwig’s character or whether he was a full friend or slight frenemy to Kinley. With Ludwig and the rest of the opening platoon, the film trades heavily with the type of juvenile banter you often expect to end with “No Homo” but thankfully stops short of that here. I’m not sure if it’s deliberately present in the script from Ritchie, Ivan Atkinson, and Marn Davies to make the men look Neanderthal-ish, but if it’s for comedic effect, then the jokes need some punching up.
One bright spot in Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant that I wish we had more of is Emily Beecham as Kinley’s wife and mother of his children, who keeps their classic car repair shop running while he is away. Beecham deservedly won Best Actress at Cannes a few years back for Little Joe (it’s a creepy film about a hungry plant), and while she’s underutilized here, she offers one of the film’s most impactful moments. Beecham and Salim may not be the headline star, but they are the actors that leave the longest-lasting impression after the film has concluded.