So named to differentiate it from dozens of other films with the Dollar General title, Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant is, ironically, perhaps the least Guy Ritchie film Guy Ritchie has yet made. The flourishes, flexes and funny business of the fella behind snatch., The Gentlemen and Wrath of Man take a backseat. Instead, Ritchie and now-regular co-writers Ivan Atkinson and Marn Davies deliver an earnest, effective exploration into wartime engines of inefficiency and the tough, terse ties that bind two men (mechanics, no less) trying to repair them.
Regardless, Ritchie seems reinvigorated here — removed from his regular routine of rogue capers or well-funded water carrying on studio properties. It’s a film that’s kinetically and keenly aware of how combat advantages change in milliseconds. When cinematographer Ed Wild slows the camera here, it’s rarely for a cool effect and more often to amplify contemplative expression. In turn, Jake Gyllenhaal and Dar Salim (Black Crab) anchor the action beats with performances attuned to embodying this thematic tension through sheer physicality and in ways that generally avoid weepy, wailing histrionics you’d find in a hoarier take on this tale. Gyllenhaal and Salim develop a largely unspoken tactical, tandem shorthand, and they forego macho melodrama for musculoskeletal minutiae — especially in a terrific, late-film conversation where you can practically sense them willing their natural stress to subside.
America’s immediate military response to 9/11 sent about 1,300 troops to Afghanistan. At peak occupational presence over the ensuing 20 years, that number would increase a hundredfold. In exchange for assisting American soldiers during interrogations, Afghan interpreters were promised visas that would let them relocate from the Taliban-throttled nation to the United States. In 2018, when The Covenant’s fictionalized tapestry from true-life experiences begins, plenty of soldiers were fluent in Pashto or Dari. By then, interpreters were an ethnically familiar, and implicitly expendable, utility player out front in running the good-cop, bad-cop playbook.
U.S. Army Master Sgt. John Kindler (Gyllenhaal) leads a platoon tasked to toss Taliban hideouts, ferret out firearms and eliminate explosives such as those that claim some of his men, and his interpreter, in the prologue. As a replacement interpreter, Kindler chooses Ahmed (Salim), a mechanic with a baby on the way and, we learn, a grudge against the Taliban.
Not having seen a trailer, The Covenant seems like the exact sort of film with marketing that would overly map out a journey best taken cold. It’s not as though The Covenant takes any sort of narratively surprising turn. But it’s preferable to have no prompt about the problematic extremes of Ahmed’s paranoia or Kindler’s practicality. Suffice to say, they make choices that lead to decoration, damnation and an extended connection beyond immediate fields of battle.
To the film’s slight detriment, there are a few dopey decisions. A curious conceit for captioned dialogue feels like a stray affectation from one of Ritchie’s Cockney-crime outings. There’s a needlessly extended moment in which Gyllenhaal recalls events depicted minutes earlier through memory flashes that resemble Metallica’s video for “The Unforgiven.” And in case you didn’t know what a covenant is, well … get ready for a definition! But any visual indulgence and symbolic hand-holding are brief, and Gyllenhaal is such a persuasive presence that he can sell even the simplest St. Crispin’s Day speech. Besides, you’re more apt to remember a ruthlessly effective oner tracking a dangerous escape, how the script underscores an imbalance of wartime resource allocation and understands the chasm between motivations of budgetary bottom lines and religious fervor, or even how time comes for us all given how Jonny Lee Miller now resembles a Midwestern La-Z-Boy salesman ascended to the rank of colonel.
Even as Ritchie quiets his quirks for the sturdy and straightforward, The Covenant still has considerable style and scope. From Chris Benstead’s skittish score to an epigram that’s less rah-rah and more requiem, this is melancholy, mournful and meaty dramatic filmmaking.