Guy Ritchie goes to war with Jake Gyllenhaal in compelling The Covenant
If you take a good look at writer/director Guy Ritchie’s filmography, you might find yourself confused. He came to fame thanks to down-and-dirty movies like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, but over the years he’s also helmed movies as disparate as Swept Away, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and the live-action remake of Aladdin.
He seemed to have settled back into the “garbage crime” part of his personality in recent years, including Operation Fortune: Ruse de guerre, released just last month. He’s back with the wholly unexpected (if weirdly-named) Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant. A far cry from his crime films, it centers on Sergeant John Kinley (Jake Gyllenhaal), who leads an Army squad stationed in Afghanistan in 2018 that’s tasked with finding caches of weapons and explosives hidden by the Taliban.
A vital part of that job is having a good interpreter who knows how to talk to locals, and Kinley finds that person in Ahmed (Dar Salim), who’s more than willing to take the job in exchange for the promise of U.S. visas for him and his family once the fighting is done. The bond between the two gets forged through extreme situations and the great instincts of both men in their jobs, and one particularly harrowing experience cements the idea that either will risk their life for the other.
Although there are plenty of intense action sequences in the film, viewers might be surprised at how earnest it is. Written by Ritchie and his favorite co-writers of late, Ivan Atkinson and Marn Davies, The Covenant has a similar feel to other modern war movies, but it manages to avoid redundancy and carves its own path.
A big part of this has to do with the relatively unique focus on the military-interpreter relationship, one that’s been seen before but not often in such an intimate way. Ritchie and his co-writers make sure to make Ahmed a fully-realized character whose personal life, desires, and fears are just as important as that of Kinley or anyone else in the film.
Scenes where Ahmed proves his worth not only establish a trust between him and Kinley, but make the audience want to root for him. The film is a work of fiction, but the filmmakers do their level best not to over-dramatize any of the sequences, lending a verisimilitude to the story for which Ritchie does not often strive.
The film does get a little messy in its second act, with Ritchie allowing Gyllenhaal to indulge in a bit of overacting, and the editing fails to connect the dots in one key scene. But they right the ship without too much damage, setting up a compelling finale.
Gyllenhaal seems to thrive in heavily dramatic roles like this, and even though it’s been years since his previous military part in Jarhead, it still fits him like a glove. Salim is a revelation, showing empathy and resolve in equal measures, giving everything the part needed to succeed. They have far and away the most screen time, but Alexander Ludwig and Jonny Lee Miller get some good scenes in supporting roles.
It’s unclear where this side of Guy Ritchie has been hiding all these years, but the juxtaposition of his regular fare to the well-done drama in The Covenant makes you wonder what else he might be able to do. At 54 years old, Ritchie is showing he’s capable of being an adult, and moviegoers are the better for it.
Guy Ritchie's The Covenant opens in theaters on April 21.