Director: Guy Ritchie
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Dar Salim, Alexander Ludwig, Antony Starr, Jonny Lee Miller, Emily Beecham, Bobby Schofield, Rhys Yates, Jason Wong
Runtime: 2 hr 3 mins
Rating: NC16 (Violence and Coarse Language)
Released By: mm2 Entertainment
Opening Day: 27 April 2023
Synopsis: Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant follows the story of US Army Sergeant John Kinley (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Afghan interpreter Ahmed (Dar Salim). After an ambush, Ahmed goes to Herculean efforts to save Kinley’s life. When Kinley learns that Ahmed and his family were not given safe passage to America as promised, he must repay his debt by returning to the war zone to retrieve them before the Taliban can hunt them down.
Inserting Guy Ritchie’s name into the title of his latest movie sounds like a marketing ploy to differentiate ‘The Covenant’ from other similarly-themed films about the US’ war in Afghanistan which ended ignominiously back in August 2021, but we suspect after seeing it that it is really to reassure audiences that it is indeed Ritchie behind the camera. Indeed, this war thriller stands apart from the usual stylistically flamboyant action work which Ritchie is known for, but for that same reason, is in fact his most outstanding yet, inspired by real-life recent history about the mostly forgotten and unsung Afghan allies who served the US mission as interpreters.
It is not hard to see why Ritchie had sparked to this story which he co-wrote – notwithstanding their contributions, the US government broke its promise to thousands of Afghans who believed that they had earned Special Immigrant Visas to escape from the inevitable recriminations they and their families would suffer at the hands of the Taliban. As morally outraged as he feels, Ritchie exercises utmost restraint in not pontificating at any point in the movie; instead, he lets the film speak for itself, trusting that its discomforting subject matter would tug at his audiences’ heartstrings long after the lights in the cinema have come on.
Though packed with many notable supporting parts, this is at its core a two-hander between US Army Special Forces Sergeant John Kinley (Jake Gyllenhaal) and former mechanic-turned-interpreter Ahmed (Dar Salim). A quick prologue shows how Kinley’s unit lost one of its men as well as their interpreter after a truck bomb goes off at a vehicle checkpoint, leading to a quick selection process back at base where Kinley picks the straight-talking but bull-headed Ahmed. Though he has no interest in the American cause, Ahmed’s son was killed by the Taliban, and his wife is pregnant, so he has reason to turn on the Taliban and to aim to start a new life in America one day.
Structured as three acts, the first establishes the understanding that Kinley and Ahmed forge out in the field, as the latter proves to be more than just a translator, but an interpreter with context, insight and nuance. Ahmed advises the owner of an opium joint to let Kinley’s unit in without resistance, because the alternative would be a lot less pretty. He also decides on his own accord to up the payment to a snitch they kidnap off the streets, in order not to provoke a worse confrontation. And en route to a supposed Taliban IED factory, Ahmed calls out a suspicious detour suggested by one of the local Afghan soldiers tagged to Kinley’s unit as an ambush.
That understanding evolves into a bond between the pair after they end up fleeing on foot for their lives from swarms of heavily armed Taliban gunmen following a raid on an abandoned mine that turns into a fierce firefight with only the two of them left alive. That second act works as a nerve-wracking survival adventure, with Kinley getting badly wounded at one point, leaving Ahmed with the arduous charge of traversing miles and miles of mountainous Taliban-controlled terrain to bring Kinley back to the Bagram air base where the US forces are stationed. Lying, negotiating and improvising all of the way, we come to be humbled by Ahmed’s resourcefulness and determination to help Kinley make it safely home to Santa Clarita.
Though extended, there is never a dull moment in this middle section, with Ritchie proving his worth as a filmmaker in this incredibly tense sequence. In particular, Ritchie switches thoughtfully every now and then to Kinley’s point of view as he drifts in and out of consciousness after suffering a concussion. These dreamy, wordless scenes also follow through to the third act, which finds Kinley suffering from post-traumatic stress as he learns how Ahmed was left in the lurch and struggles helplessly thereafter against the military bureaucracy to secure Ahmed the visas he was promised. Whilst Kinley heading back to Afghanistan himself to get Ahmed and his family out offers Ritchie just the sort of excuse to stage an action-packed finale, the film has more than made its point by then about the covenant since forged between our heroes.
In Gyllenhaal and Salim, Ritchie has found an electrifying duo to play out two men from different worlds bound by a code of honour. Some may recall that the last time that Gyllenhaal had played a US Marine sniper in ‘Jarhead’ nearly two decades ago, but Gyllenhaal is even more compelling here as a man trying to do right by someone he owes his life too. On the other hand, Salim may be a relative unknown, but the Danish actor best known for his supporting role in ‘Game of Thrones’ gives a completely authentic and riveting performance in his first Hollywood outing. Together, they make you root hard for Kinley and Ahmed to survive that one last and seemingly impossible mission to make it out safe.
And with ‘The Covenant’, Ritchie demonstrates that he can be much more than the visual stylist we know him for through ‘Snatch’, the ‘Sherlock Holmes’ movies and ‘The Gentlemen’. Compared to his oeuvre so far, this movie is probably his most down-to-earth yet, eschewing any flourishes to deliver a straight-up war thriller. It also manages to be topical, suspenseful and moving because of its plucked from real life setting, reminding us in the end credits that more than 300 Afghan interpreters and their families have been killed by the Taliban, with thousands more in hiding, despite initial assurances from the US government. If it isn’t yet obvious, this is one of our favourite Guy Ritchie movies, and we’d recommend whether you’re fan or not of his works to see it for its gripping tale of brotherhood and survival.
(The most unlikely Guy Ritchie film you'll see, this gritty, gripping and gut-wrenching tale of brotherhood and survival is one of the best war thrillers in recent time)
Review by Gabriel Chong