Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Dar Salim, Emily Beecham, Antony Starr, Alexander Ludwig
Written by Guy Ritchie, Ivan Atkinson and Marn Davies
Directed by Guy Ritchie
Produced by Guy Ritchie, Ivan Atkinson, John Friedberg and Josh Berger
Cinematography by Ed Wild
Edited by James Herbert
Music by Christopher Benstead
By Matt Neufeld
April 20, 2023
Guy Ritchie has been on quite the roll during just the past five years, producing, directing and writing a string of successful films in a variety of genres: The live-action version of “Aladdin,” from 2019, became one of the top-fifty-grossing movies of all time; “The Gentlemen,” from 2019, is one of the best gangster crime films in years; “Wrath of Man,” from 2021, is one of the best action-adventure thrillers in years: and “Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre,” from this year, 2013, is one of the best spy thrillers in many years, even easily surpassing in terms of quality and entertainment most of the Daniel Craig-era Bond films.
And now, Ritchie’s “The Covenant,” which is being released this weekend of April 21-23, 2023, joins this impressive streak, immediately making it’s mark as, simply, one of the best war films in years. “The Covenant” is moving, emotional, gripping, suspenseful, taut, tight, action-packed, and packed full of timeless, important messages, morals and themes about, essentially, generally, the pure hell, fog, insanity, senselessness and sheer horror that most warfare ends up being after all of the shooting and killing and politicking and fanatical religious posturing and bloodshed is over.
The film is also about many other issues. “The Covenant” is a story about friendship; about maintaining the strong bonds that occur on the battlefield and, by extension, in other areas of life; about adhering to the strong, deep and meaningful oaths and pledges that people make to one another in war and in life; about how sometimes it’s necessary to make the ultimate risks, such as risking your very life, to save the lives of others; about the importance of certain humanitarian missions to help people suffering in the most dire of situations and who need help more than most people; and about fighting against insane, psycho, terrorist, fanatical and violent regimes that basically treat their citizens like crap and deny their people the most basic of human and civil and legal rights.
All of these eternally essential and important themes are presented amid a continually suspenseful, fast-moving and fascinating story of not only war, but, basically, humanity in “The Covenant.” Ritchie ably presents a most well-crafted modern-day war story that superbly blends the action, terror, violence and outright death of war with the aforementioned themes and messages and with an over-riding, core tale of the human bonds of friendship, caring and kindness that rise to carry life, and the story, and the movie, to emotional heights that overcome any political, geo-political, religious, governmental, defense and warfare plans, procedures, politics and policies.
The best war films, of course, have always accomplished this mostly difficult filmic goal–to relay the most important of themes and messages without sacrificing drama, excitement and entertainment. That sounds easy, but it’s rarely easy, even among the thousands of war films released through the years. Of course, there are hundreds of classic war films that stand above the rest and stand the tests of time, entertainment and intelligence, but there’s far too many that just can’t find that balance that Ritchie expertly strikes in “The Covenant.”
Ritchie, the film’s director, co-writer and co-producer, worked on “The Covenant” with a core group of co-producers and co-writers who he has also worked with on with “The Gentlemen,” “Wrath of Man” and “Operation Fortune”—–Ivan Atkinson and Marn Davies. This, too, is just impressive on every level. To see three talented, creative men work hard together on four excellent films in just five years is impressive. Whomever muses are inspiring and driving and energizing Ritchie, Atkinson and Davies these days, let’s all hope that this inspiration, drive and energy continue for many years to come.
“The Covenant” tells the story of a dedicated, tough and driven, but war- and mission-weary, U.S. Army sergeant in Afghanistan in the 2000s, Sgt. John Kinley, of California, whose dreary, dangerous and life-threatening task is to find secret, hidden and underground stashes of explosives and other weaponry amid the complete, utter insanity of 21st-century, U.S.-occupied Afghanistan. Like everything else in Afghanistan, Kinley’s tasks, duties and missions seem to be going nowhere, seem to be futile, and, increasingly, just don’t seem to make a damn bit of sense.
Then, Kinley hires a new interpretor, Ahmed, an Afghanistan native who is as tough, driven, dedicated and Afghanistan-weary, war-weary and life-weary as Kinley. The two form an instant bond of comrades in arms and comrades in finding arms, and they set out to invigorate their investigations, missions and clandestine operations. As they begin to succeed in finding those Taliban underground caches, their increasing successes draw the wrath, violence, hatred and violence of the Taliban.
Through a series of events, Kinley and Ahmed are subsequently left abandoned in the wilds of Afghanistan with little food, water, money and resources, they become major enemies of the Taliban, and they are ruthlessly, violently hunted through the mountainous wilderness by horrific, barbaric Taliban soldiers. Kinley’s and Ahmed’s story soon becomes a story of survival and friendship.
To watch actors Jake Gyllenhaal, who plays Kinley, and Dar Salim, who plays Ahmed, bond together, fight together, try to survive together, stand up for each other, help each other and, eventually, become friends together, is to watch two talented, dynamic actors deliver two powerhouse, excellent performances. Gyllenhaal and Salim carry this movie, and they are sharp, energetic, dramatic and physically action-oriented at a consistently high level throughout the entire film. They deliver two superb performances.
Everyone else delivers, too. Gyllenhaal and Salim are in most of the movie’s scenes, but there is an equally-excellent ensemble of supporting actors who also turn in admirable performances. Ritchie directs at that consistently high level of confidence and assurance that’s bolstered his other recent film successes. The script is well-written—smart, sparse and snappy. The writers–Ritchie, Atkinson and Davies–try their best to avoid cliches, macho preening and arrogance and other war movie traps, and they mostly succeed. There’s still too much of that gung-ho super-macho super soldier rah-rah rank-and-file militaristic and nationalistic self-centeredness and egotism, however. And Ritchie has Kinley be so dedicated and committed to his mission and his uniform, at times the movie almost veers too far into familiar war movie tropes we’ve all seen and not enjoyed too many times. But Ritchie, Atkinson and Davies are too smart to fall too far into those traps, and “The Covenant” remains successful enough to mostly avoid most of those familiar war movie cliches.
The cinematography from Ed Wild utilizes an array of clever, original and impressive shots, including what appears to be some excellent drone shots. Wild and editor James Herbert film the movie’s warfare, gunfight, explosion, chase and close-up hand-to-hand combat scenes with just the right amount and balance of intensity, fast-paced editing and quick camera shots that deliver the action in entertaining–albeit frightening and horrific–ways that demonstrate the horrors of war but also provide a concurrent head rush and adrenaline boost in terms of action, adventure and suspense.
The movie’s main story about Kinley and Ahmed is fictional, but the story is based on the real-life Afghanistan situation in which the United States hired thousands of Afghanistan interpretors to help in the war efforts, promised them visas to get them to the United States— and then promptly completely abandoned them, leaving many to be murdered and slaughtered and abandoned. Many interpretors hired by the U.S. were murdered by the Taliban, and many more had to go into hiding. That’s just horrible, sad and despicable.
This complete failure by the U.S. is presented in “The Covenant,” and the United States’ complete failure to uphold it’s promise to these heroic people presents another valuable lesson in the movie: In wars, no one really wins, and everyone loses on one level or another. The U.S. didn’t win much in Afghanistan, and neither did the world. The U.S. spent twenty years–two entire sad, desperate and wasteful decades–fighting in Afghanistan, only to abruptly, but correctly, leave. Within one month of the U.S. leaving the country, the insane, psycho, backwards, primitive, racist, sexist and bloodthirsty Taliban were back in charge.
Although we have an excellent movie in “The Covenant,” and we have some excellent anti-war and pro-peace-and-love messages in the film, in the end, as with any war movie, we’re still left with that age-old question: War–what is it good for? And we’re also left with that same age-old answer: Absolutely nothing.