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GUY RITCHIES THE COVENANT.jpg

'Guy Ritchie's The Covenant' Tries Very Hard Not to Be Political

By Jason Adams | Film | April 21, 2023 |

By Jason Adams | Film | April 21, 2023 |


GUY RITCHIES THE COVENANT.jpg

It wouldn’t be saying too much to admit right here off the bat that Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant (and yes, he’s now including his name in the title like he’s Bram Stoker or something) very well may be my favorite Guy Ritchie movie to date. Because admittedly there’s not a lot of competition for that title. Oh, I enjoyed The Man From U.N.C.L.E. well enough—especially when Elizabeth Debicki was on screen. But the British gangster crime capers Ritchie made his name with, your Snatches and your Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrelses, they were never so much my jam. They always felt like copies of copies—just Michael Caine movies of the 1960s with extra violence, F-bombs, and a whole lotta barely sublimated homoeroticism slathered on top.

While The Covenant isn’t quite one of those movies air-dropped into the mountains of Afghanistan, it’s enough of that to make it actually kind of interesting. The ways in which it’s not quite that end up being interesting too. Telling the true story of U.S. Army Special Forces Sgt. John Kinley (Jake Gyllenhaal, thrillingly bearded) and his hot and heavy bromance with a local interpreter named Ahmed (Dar Salim) who saves his life, and who the soldier must then rescue in turn, is basically structured around two capers. Just of the military kind. I believe they call them “missions”? Who knows.

The first 2/3rds of the movie involve Kinley’s team trying to sniff out the locations where the Taliban is building their bombs, and it shows us how Kinley and Ahmed slowly but surely build their trust in one another. It’s nothing you’ve not seen before—light antagonism gives way to friendliness and respect, churn and repeat. But the actors keep everything dialed down enough to make it the least obnoxious version of that. And then the last third of the movie involves Kinley heading back into Afghanistan after he’s been sent home, to help Ahmed and his family escape after the typically shitty U.S. Government’s reneged on its promise to passport interpreters out of harm’s way.

I don’t know if it’s just the fact that he’s telling a true story here, but this is far and away the most serious-minded movie that Ritchie’s ever attempted—there’s bros-will-be-bros war-time camaraderie between the Kinley’s interchangeable crew of fighting men (lots of, you guessed it, No-Homo-ing), sure. Of course, there is. It’s still Guy Ritchie! His name’s right there in the title! But it’s all played straight and sticks firmly to not-too-flashy realism—a sequence where the tension ratchets up as the soldiers uncover what they’ve been looking for is deftly handled, especially once things head south. My ass actually met the edge of my seat!

And the long sequence that follows, where the bond between Ahmed and Kinley is truly forged across the unforgiving Afghan landscape, contains some of the most poetic imagery that Ritchie’s ever filmed. (He’s helped out well on that front by a legitimately gorgeous score from Christopher Benstead.) At times it dips its toe into motivational poster theatrics, flattening an extremely complicated situation into a simple push-that-cart-over-one-more-hill drama. But Gyllenhaal and Salim, both very good, keep managing to do just enough filling up of the potholes to get us to the finish line.

While that’s true character-wise and visually, the film unfortunately tries very hard to not be political, which is in this day and age depressing, if no not terribly surprising. (You should look to the genuine political activism on display in How to Blow Up a Pipeline to see a much braver movie—one with a real perspective on the world today and what to do about it.) A title card at The Covenant’s start that says the U.S. went to war with Afghanistan as “retaliation” for 9/11 is, one supposes, technically a way to use that word. But it reduces a situation about a thousand miles more complex to near rubble.

So what Ritchie delivers is indeed at its basic enough form “A stirring tale of real heroism, thrillingly realized!” And I’m sure all involved are happy enough with that. The audience at my screening applauded and cheered in the moments where the movie wanted them to cheer and applaud. I’m sure if I’d been a creep wearing night-vision goggles in the theater I would have seen the audience tear up in the moments where the movie wanted them to tear up, too. (I cried, but I’m the world’s easiest crier.) It’s effective enough stuff! Even if you can easily suss out the ways in which it could’ve burrowed into thornier territory, and you might find yourself longing for some of those thorns instead.