If you told me Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant was based on a true story, I would have believed you given the setting and implications laid out in the films narrative. But to my and I’m sure everyone’s surprise, the story written by Ivan Atkinson, Marn Davies and Ritchie is completely fictious. Fictional as it may be, the events are not as farfetched as you may think given the countless stories of heroism that have occurred since the war against terrorism began in 2001. In a hostile and foreign environment, one wrong move can be the difference between life and death, especially for a well-trained group of soldiers who make it their mission to find bomb making factories.
Guy Ritchie is having himself a year so far in 2023. 4 months in and The Covenant for short marks the writer-director’s second feature length film. And the two couldn’t be more different from one another in tone and a genre standpoint. That’s what makes a filmmaker like Guy Ritchie a director to seek out – his filmography is diverse and consistent. And it’s with a war film / story of resilience, survival and brotherhood that the range from Ritchie’s filmmaking stands out the most.
All of the usual, can spot them from a mile away topes that a war film uses to tell a story of ordinary people doing extraordinary things can be found throughout The Covenant but with each trope comes layers of nuance and dimension to its 2 protagonists.
Taking place in Afghanistan during the height of the war between America and the terrorist group known as the Taliban, Army sergeant John Kinley (Jake Gyllenhaal) recruits an interpreter after their previous one unfortunately was killed in action. Ahmed (Dar Salim) is hired by John in which Ahmed became an interpreter to seek revenge on the Taliban for killing his son. The two men get off on a rocky start but given the volatility of the environment the United States troops are in, its John and Ahmed’s bond that saves their lives.
War films have an appeal of intimacy to them simply for following a small, contained group of men all experiencing the same disaster together and surviving by any means necessary. War films also are at their strongest when depicting the egregious acts of violence against humanity as a means to shine a light on how horrible these acts are. It’s why the small group of protagonists are necessary to root for against the evilness of hate groups. With each death to the villains (there isn’t one centralized villain as the entire organization is the threat), a bit of satisfaction can be had.
For nearly the entirety of the 123-minute runtime, The Covenant is placed squarely on the shoulders of Gyllenhaal and Salim. The 2 co-leads even swapping spots between savior and the one being saved. For how vast and expansive the terrain of Afghanistan is, Ritchie’s story stays firmly on John and Ahmed. Cinematographer Ed Wind puts us right in the heat of the Afghanistan desert along with John and Ahmed, capturing the highly intense action with the same steady nature that a John Wick is shot with. Often John and Ahmed are running for their very lives and it’s the camera staying put that gets every detail. Both close quarter and silent fighting to small firefights with dozens of men and bodies can be found injecting a steady does of tension throughout.
Complimenting the action in making an insufferable environment is a thundering score by composer Christopher Benstead. It’s a score that emphasizes the struggle of survival against all odds by the slimmest of margins with booming hums and notes.
While there are other faces that pop up during the strenuous journey of search and rescue like Antony Starr as Eddie Parker, an independent contractor with experience in extractions and Emily Beecham as Caroline Kinley, John’s Wife who understands his temperament and loyalty to his brotherhood and accepts John’s duty in saving Ahmed, its Dar Salim who outshines Gyllenhaal every chance he gets. No stranger to war films, Gyllenhaal brings a ferocity and natural charisma to his role however, Salim is more solemn and stoic. The two complement each other well forming a yin and yang relationship between their skill sets. There are several moments where the two actors are tactically maneuvering without words and the two are completely comfortable, like acting is their hobby and soldiers are their main job.
Dar Salim needs to be in so much more; his talent and instincts take over in a pulse pounding sequence where any outcome is truly possible. It’s during this sequence that Ahmed’s ingenuity bursts through – there are several times when Ritchie implies that Ahmed and John will get caught, only to have them escape by a matter of inches. The intensity of The Hurt Locker meets the emotional journey of Saving Private Ryan, Guy Ritchie checks all the boxes with a tantalizing narrative that feels all too real.
The war John and Ahmed are caught up in aside, The Covenant’s true power is in the bond between its characters which transcends genre. 2 men that come from different worlds, backgrounds, political ideologies to save one another and from there become brothers who depend on each other to stay alive for just a little bit longer. Led by 2 outstanding performances, The Covenant is sharp, well-paced (until the second half kicks in), and an endearing story of survival and resilience. Every war has heroes who sacrificed everything for their brother in arms and this story is no different. An unpredictable kind of danger compared to No Man’s Land or D-Day, however the acts of bravery and courage are the same. For how different they are from one another, Guy Ritchie is 2-2 this year.
Screenplay By: Ivan Atkinson, Marn Davies & Guy Ritchie
Directed By: Guy Ritchie
Music By: Christopher Benstead
Cinematography: Ed Wind
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal & Dar Salim
Edited By: James Herbert
Release Date: April 21, 2023
Running Time: 2 Hours 2 Minutes
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 81%