Guy Ritchie should get serious more often. The filmmaker known best for his witty, fast-paced crime comedies, or even faster-paced Sherlock Holmes flicks, shows a completely different side with his thrilling, meaningful military thriller The Covenant. Formerly titled The Interpreter, which sounds like a dull film about language translators, it’s actual full-length title is Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant, and for good reason. This is the rare project that doesn’t immediately strike you as a Ritchie joint. Capturing big emotions has never been a problem for Ritchie, but to do it with a clear goal in mind beyond mere entertainment value, he’s landed on one of the best films of his already impressive career.
The Covenant is a war film, but spared of the rampant jingoism and flag-waving that too often saddles others to their detriment. You can sense the finger pointing of shame as we learn the action takes place in 2018, an unfathomable 17 years after U.S. troops were deployed in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks. Jake Gyllenhaal, who previously played a bored Gulf War soldier in Jarhead way back in 2005, is back in uniform as Sergeant John Kinley. The battle-tested but fatigued McKinley is tasked with sniffing out IEDs and other weapons hidden by the Taliban, but has grown fed up with wild goose chases and little success. He has a family back home, a wife and kids, with a business to run. He could be doing other things, basically.
Gyllenhaal shares the most screen time opposite Dar Salim, who plays Afghan interpretor Ahmed. From the moment Gyllenhaal and Salim meet, they are an incredible duo that just instantly clicks. Sometimes that happens. You get a pair of actors that just have that instant chemistry you can’t look away from or get enough of, and that’s what happens here. Ahmed is a bit of a wild card, but he knows the terrain and the people. He also knows how to play the game to get Kinley what he needs, even if that means overstepping direct orders. Kinley was warned that Ahmed could be trouble, but he also proves invaluable. Plus, he has a serious grudge against the Taliban, and needs the promised Visas to get his family out of Afghanistan and to America.
It’s funny to say that Ritche holds back on the action when the body count in The Covenant is crazy high, but it’s true. Battle erupts early and often, and while the fighting is intense, this is realistic displays of violence rather than the stylized approach of Ritchie’s other films. The second and most gripping fight, a Taliban ambush that leaves Kinley and Ahmed separated from the unit, is will leave you breathless as wave after wave of attackers descends on the duo.
With Kinley badly wounded, it’s up to Ahmed to literally drag him hundreds of miles through Taliban-controlled territory, pushing himself to the physical and emotional limit for weeks in hopes of finding safety. The Covenant morphs from a war film into a survival thriller, where the Taliban is only one of the many dangers they face. Mother Nature, a harsh terrain and climate, and uncertainty who to trust, are equally life-threatening
None of this would be as gripping if it weren’t for the incredible performances by Gyllenhaal and Salim, the latter a Danish actor in the biggest Hollywood role he’s yet had. That is sure to change after this. Salim actually steals this movie away from Gyllenhaal, but that’s mainly because Ahmed’s story is the most compelling. Ahmed and Kinley play familiar archetypes; hard, tough men with strict moral codes, a rebel streak, and more in common than either man can see, initially. They are men whose trust must be earned, and earned when the chips are down. It’s in the fires of battle that they learn to lean on the other, and to become something greater than friends.
Eventually, The Covenant morphs again into something completely different. Kinley has been returned home to California safely. But Ahmed, due to his helping an American evade the Taliban’s capture, has become a wanted man and has fled underground with his family. Battling personal demons and intense survivor’s guilt, Kinley burns up the phone lines to get the government to honor their promise to Ahmed and get him to safety. What he gets is a lot of stone-walling and red tape, driving Kinley to the point of madness. Eventually, it becomes clear that if Kinley is going to save Ahmed, he’s going to have to do it himself.
So it feels a bit glamourized Hollywood-style that this story should conclude with Kinley going back onto the battlefield for a big rescue scene, but chances are you won’t care. You’ll be too busy at the edge of your seat cheering on Kinley and Ahmed’s reunion, and hoping for them to survive one last seemingly impossible firefight.
The Covenant is more than just a great action movie, it’s a movie with purpose. We owe a debt to the hundreds of Afghan interpretors who put their lives on the line to help our men and women in uniform. If this movie brings attention to this very real issue and helps light a fire, then Guy Ritchie has used his talents in the best way possible.
Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant opens in theaters on April 21st.