The Lock, Stock director stamps down on a lot of his usual flourishes for an earnest war movie about brotherhood and honour
Guy Ritchie continues his ridiculously prolific recent streak with The Covenant – his fifth film in five years, with a sixth in six (about World War II spycraft) due out in 2024. It makes for a solid if not hugely remarkable addition to his oeuvre, more earnest than you might expect as a follow up to Operation Fortune, inspired by the recent headline-grabbing stories of US military interpreters in Afghanistan and the way they were abandoned during America’s chaotic exit from the country.
We open in 2018 with Sergeant John Kinley (Jake Gyllenhaal) witnessing the death of his current interpreter, along with one of his American squadmates, in an IED attack. Picking out a new interpreter, John decides on Ahmed (Dar Salim) despite, or maybe because of, his reputation for stubbornness. Ahmed soon proves his loyalty and capabilities, and a bond between him and John forms, one that is tested when the Taliban put a price on the pair’s head and John has to get Ahmed and his family out of the country, fighting enemy troops and American visa bureaucracy.
It’s not a journey with too many surprises, but Gyllenhaal and Salim make for a compelling lead duo, Gyllenhaal carrying on his run of the past couple of years as a reliable action star. Ritchie tones down a lot of his usual stylistic and dialogue flourishes – at first glance, you could mistake The Covenant for, say, one of those Peter Berg/Mark Wahlberg “recent history” films – but still marshals some impressive shootouts.
The absolute highlight of these – and of the film in general – is in a catastrophic ambush on John and Ahmed’s squad. It’s proper stomach-churning stuff as the troops are picked off one-by-one, the situation getting ever more dire and, even if the rest of the film can’t match the sheer heft of this moment, the connection it forcibly forms between you and the squad powers everything that comes after. With the exception of the very Call of Duty-esque finale, Ritchie resists the urge to go too big in his action scenes, resulting in one of his most grounded and “realistic” movies.
It’s a shame, though, that within this (very relative) subtlety, The Covenant can’t find any faith in its audience’s intelligence. We get a lot of pace-killing flashbacks to moments we’ve already seen, while laughably simple concepts are spelled out in big on-screen text – a for-dummies breakdown of what IED stands for is an unintentionally hilarious low point. Maybe in a more stereotypically quippy Ritchie film there would be a way of pulling this idiot-proof approach with panache, but here it just feels a little insulting.
It’s hard to stay particularly mad at The Covenant, though. This is a movie with simple “Friday night in” goals, all about honourable best friends killing the bad guys, and it reaches them without too much trouble. It’s a minor entry into the Ritchie canon – next year’s The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare sounds like much more his classic speed – but one that, perhaps even more than his Disney redo of Aladdin, shows a filmmaker with a lot more range than he’s often credited for.
Guy Ritchie's The Covenant is now streaming on Amazon.Where to watch