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  • Writer's pictureMatt Conway

Guy Ritchie's The Covenant: Review

Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant Synopsis: After an ambush, Afghan interpreter Ahmed goes to great lengths to save US Army Sergeant John Kinley’s life. When Kinley learns that Ahmed and his family were not given safe passage to America as promised, he must repay his debt by returning to the war zone to retrieve them before the Taliban hunts them down.

A United States staff sergeant and Afghan interpreter form an unbreakable bond forged in the fires of war in Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant.

Narratives centered on the trials and tribulations stemming from war-torn conditions are commonplace in Hollywood, with several focused on military conflicts set in our modern zeitgeist. The nearly two decades of bullets and bloodshed that followed the 9/11 terrorist attack is an unavoidable topic of conversation for several filmmakers. Some creatives have utilized the harrowing subject matter to conjure thoughtful depictions of war and its lingering ramifications (Jarhead and Zero Dark Thirty), while others painted bland and jingoistic efforts that offered sparse substance (12 Strong). I’d argue that war films are the most challenging cinematic feats to execute. Even the sincerest of intentions can turn sideways if a film lacks the sophistication and tact needed to honor its subjects’ valiant sacrifices.

With The Covenant, slick cockney auteur Guy Ritchie shies away from his crime caper trademark by tackling his most sobering subject matter to date. The results, while admittedly uneven, define a respectful and occasionally stirring portrait of two unlikely partners pledged to a timeless warrior code.

To The Covenant’s credit, the central relationship between Staff Sergent John Kinney and Afghan interpreter Ahmed is not the simplest of dynamics. Kinney appears at first as an amalgam of various other military leaders – hard-nosed, pragmatic, and boasting a single-minded vision for completing his mission. The arrival of Ahmed serves as just another cog in his operation, although Kinney is not the most trusting of what his interpreter can bring to the table.

Screenwriters Ritchie, Marn Davis and Ivan Atkinson intelligently lean into the cultural divide buried within the characters’ relationship. Years of battle have created jaded blinders for Kinney, which leads to the sergeant dismissively talking down to Ahmed during their first encounters and showcasing deep distrust for his intentions. The screenplay is perceptive to paint Kinney’s viewpoint not as outward racism, but rather as a deeply-seated condition stemming from decades of bad-faith propaganda and callous military directives.

Ritchie and Cinematographer Ed Wild further extenuate this tension with ingenious framing choices, like capturing early conversations from mirrors and other reflective surfaces rather than establishing eye-to-eye contact. Yet, despite the animosity, Ahmed remains accepting of these conditions solely because it represents his only chance to create a new life for his family.

Once the duo is tested on the battlefield, the lines of politicization and cultural divide quickly fade away. Ahmed and Kinney take turns risking their lives by embarking on quests to save one another, forming an understated yet encompassing pact that loudly rings with emotional truth. Stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Dar Salim work brilliantly in tandem to depict this dynamic. Both exude conviction and gravitas while effectively tapping into the insular nuances of their characters. Several heart-wrenching dramatic scenes here rely solely on the actors’ ability to conjure meaningful sentiments without utilizing much in terms of dialogue or traditional character-building.

I also give Ritchie credit for tempering his verbose style to fit within the confines of Covenant’s approach. His work behind the camera is consistently poised, digging into the rugged trenches of the Afghanistan landscape with an eye for authenticity. The lack of Hollywoodized visual touches is critical in ensuring the film’s dramatic tone. For instance, action setpieces are usually Ritchie’s playground for deploying creative camera techniques, but the lack of flourishes here keeps the agency and dramatic integrity of the impactful violence intact.

For all of The Covenant’s strengths, the film eventually settles for being a sturdy yet unremarkable reflection on war’s personal costs. After an engaging first third that focuses exclusively on the characters and their baggage, the film begins to stumble due to its embrace of straightforward thrills. Ritchie and his screenwriting team gradually lose their thematic throughline as the final hour spends most of its time racing from one noisy setpiece to the next. A helping of typical war movie fixtures, such as sanctimonious speeches and heavy-handed score, also fall within generic lines for the genre.

Still, Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant resonates with an emphatic punch in its earnest depiction of two soldiers clinging onto each other amidst seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant opens in theaters on April 21.


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