Guy Ritchie's The Covenant (R) ★★★

Review Date: April 26th, 2023

The Covenant offers Guy Ritchie an opportunity to step out of his comfort zone and try something with more substance than is usual for him. Gone are the snarky one-liners and zingers that have become his trademarks. And, although there's certainly a fair amount of machismo being offered, it's of a more subdued and self-reflective variety (at least until the climax). Ritchie is unquestionably making the attempt to craft a more meaningful and mature movie than anything he has previously done.

The movie's full title is Guy Ritchie's The Covenant, which about as self-aggrandizing as one can envision. The studio claims that the supposed reason for adding the director's name to the title is to avoid confusion with an earlier movie called The Covenant. Regardless, without the Guy Ritchie's appendage, there's nothing specific to identify this as being the product of the director who, at various stages of his career, made Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and the Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes.

Events transpire in 2018 Afghanistan. 17 years after combat began with a righteous retaliatory strike following 9/11, the occupation has turned into an ugly war of attrition with no end in sight. It has long since become apparent that any sort of traditional "victory" is impossible; the best that can be hoped for is to avoid what happened in Vietnam and, to achieve that, a sizeable military force is mandated and that means a drip-drip-drip of casualties. Worse, the U.S. government doesn't always fulfill promises to Afghans who help in the war effort. In exchange for their assistance and cooperation, they are offered U.S. citizenship and safe passage but that doesn't always happen.

Sgt. John Kinley (Jake Gyllenhaal) is in charge of a small unit of men tasked with locating and destroying IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices). His translator, Ahmed (Dar Salim), comes armed not only with combat experience but an understanding of the mindset of the enemy. He is able to successfully predict an ambush and his early warning allows Kinley's unit to avoid springing the trap. When a raid on a mine where the Taliban is manufacturing and storing IEDs turns into a bloodbath, Ahmed and Kinley are the only survivors. When the American is seriously wounded, the translator transports him across dozens of miles of dangerous, hostile territory so he can receive medical attention. Ahmed's payment: topping a Taliban "most wanted" list that forces him and his wife, Basira (Fariba Sheikhan), to go underground. Back in California, Kinley finds he can't live with himself while the man who saved him is in mortal danger. He wrestles with the bureaucracy to obtain visas for Ahmed, Basira, and their newborn child, then returns in disguise to Afghanistan to facilitate their escape.

At least until the last act, when The Covenant begins to look like a traditional action film, the movie feels different. It's less focused on the "rah rah" aspects of a jingoistic war movie, instead preferring a somber and contemplative tone. It also doesn't devolve into a generic bonding experience between men with vastly different backgrounds. (This is not an updated version of The Defiant Ones.) Kinley and Ahmed become a team in the wilderness for a while but their partnership is more about surviving than getting to know each other. When Ahmed acts to save the disabled Kinley, he doesn't do it because they have become "friends" but because of his own internal code of honor.

The Covenant doesn't arouse the stirrings of fervor that many war movies tap into but neither is it a nihilistic descent into the inhumanity of battle. The trajectory is one of dual heroism but, when it's over, a sense of sadness overlies the triumph. Ritchie asks difficult and uncomfortable questions that hung over the war for much of its duration until the messy withdrawal. He does this without finger-pointing at any particular administration. The condemnation casts a wide net and emphasizes the human toll even when things ultimately go "well."

It's unlikely that The Covenant is going to make much at the box office. Guy Ritchie's name not withstanding, there's little here with strong mass appeal - not enough mind-numbing action; too much dwelling on a recent, tragic, failed war; and a muted catharsis. It's also one of the best things Ritchie has done since his early years (only Lock, Stock is unequivocally better) and deserves a viewing when MGM brings it to streaming.

© 2023 James Berardinelli