Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant notably marks the first feature that has included the eponymous filmmaker’s name in the title itself, a rather curious development as the film is the least Guy Ritchie-esque movie in his entire filmography. Indeed, the final product plays more like the director’s attempt at aping the style of Peter Berg, a slab of right-wing militaristic propaganda that manages the miracle of making Lone Survivor look subtle in comparison. Perhaps an even more stunning discovery is that The Covenant is entirely a work of fiction, its far-flung story of the brotherhood’s bonds forged in the hells of combat so relentlessly cliched that it seemed all but a lock for based-on-a-true-story status. That makes the script, courtesy of Ritchie and co-writers Marn Davies and Ivan Atkinson, nearly impossible to forgive in both its mind-numbing predictability and — to be quite frank — outright stupidity.
Jake Gyllenhaal, in pure paycheck mode, stars as John Kinley, a Sergeant Major of the American Army who, in the year 2018, is stationed in Afghanistan, where he and the various members of his troop are hunting down Taliban-deployed IEDs. The various soldiers under Kinley’s command are introduced with on-screen text, and in such quick succession that it is all but impossible to make heads-or-tails of who is who. Not that Ritchie is remotely interested in these men, as most aren’t even afforded a single character trait — although, in fairness, one of them does like to eat and talk about food. Entering this tight-knit group is Ahmed (Dar Salim), a no-nonsense Afghani interpreter with whom Kinley forms an eventual bond because they are both stubborn and, damn it, they have to respect that in one another. But a raid on an IED manufacturing plant soon leaves the entire troop dead, save for Kinley and Ahmed, who must travel by foot over treacherous terrain to reach base as they are relentlessly hunted by the Taliban.
It’s at the halfway point in the film that Kinley becomes injured to the point of catatonia, with Ahmed dragging — and, with the eventual aid of a wagon, wheeling — Kinley’s lifeless body over 50 miles to safety, an impossible feat that the film devotes less than fifteen minutes to detailing, opting for a series of montages (set to a bombastic and ultimately oppressive score courtesy of Christopher Benstead) that robs the movie of anything resembling tension while also completely neutering Ahmed’s Herculean task. Cut ahead seven weeks, and Kinley discovers from the safety of his home in California that Ahmed is #1 Most Wanted on the Taliban’s kill list, a fact that has forced the interpreter, along with his wife and newborn baby, into hiding. The remainder of The Covenant focuses on Kinley’s attempts to locate Ahmed and his family and secure their safe passage to America, with Sergeant Major ultimately traveling to Afghanistan once more in the name of brotherhood, because, of course.
The film’s first hour is certainly no great shakes, but it feels like a downright masterpiece in comparison to the dire second half, which mostly consists of Gyllenhaal delivering a lot of long-winded monologues about the importance of paying back debts while doing his best to look as tough as possible, which amounts to a dedicated monotone delivery and a catalog of dead-eyed stares. Much like Ritchie’s last feature, Mission:Impossible-wannabe Operation Fortune, The Covenant is completely devoid of any of the stylistic tics that once marked the director’s work. Some might view this as a sign of maturation, but such an argument is DOA when the alternative is just some shaky cam and a palette of browns and grays that have been bleached and color-corrected within an inch of their life. Oh wait, Ritchie does this one thing where the camera slowly zooms in on someone when they are speaking, then it slowly — or sometimes even quickly — zooms out again within the same shot. Spielberg, take notes. Jokes aside, the director utilizes this move to the point of unintentional comedy, repeated ad nauseam across the film’s runtime.
Faring no better is Gyllenhaal, who delivers what might be the worst performance of his career, an approximation of machismo that feels forced by half. Salim at least brings some much-need gravitas to a sorely under-written role, but there is no depth to be found in the characterization, simply archetypes that exist in service of some good old-fashioned, “America, fuck yeah!” But wait, maybe there is actually more to this movie. After all, on-screen text at the film’s end states that Afghani interpreters who were abandoned upon the U.S.’s withdrawal from the country in 2021 are still being hunted by members of the Taliban, who see them as traitors. Perhaps Ritchie is attempting to shed light upon a horrifying consequence of American imperialism and the military-industrial complex, using and disposing of those individuals whose lives the U.S. was supposedly there to protect. Scratch that: the end credits also include lots of photos of nameless — and in most cases, faceless — American soldiers posing with who we are to assume are Afghani interpreters. There are even a few smiles here and there. That this all scans just as profoundly hollow and borderline insulting as everything else that preceded it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Indeed, there is nary one to be found in this particular Covenant, Guy Ritchie’s or otherwise.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 16.