Guy Ritchie's The Covenant
Updated: Jun 5
The British director's latest is a rare winning modern war film
After the disastrous US Army withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021, stories about the unpaid debts that the Americans had with tens of thousands of interpreters began to come to light. About 50,000 Afghan nationals had served as interpreters for the U.S. Army, and many were left at the mercy of the Taliban in the American withdrawal. With such stakes and dramatic stories, it was only natural for Hollywood to come knocking to show this unique relationship and unfulfilled protection on the big screen.
Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant (2023) is the fictional story of Master Sergeant John Kinley (Jake Gyllenhaal) and the relationship he develops with his Afghan interpreter Ahmed (Dar Salim). The film has three acts, in which the skeptical John is won over by the sacrifice and daring of Ahmed.
The trailer for The Covenant sadly gives the entire narrative away with viewers only left guessing as to what the final scene will be. This is a common frustration with modern trailers, but a rant for another essay. For viewers’ enjoyment, I prefer to keep the plot synopsis brief to maximize the subversion of expectation and twists that the film takes.
Ritchie has hit a new stride in his prolificity, The Covenant is his second released in as many months (albeit the previous, Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre (2023) was a delayed release). The Covenant is Ritchie’s most restrained and intimate in years. Gone is the signature comedy and witticisms for a grittier look into The Covenant’s subject matter. However, Ritchie’s snappy dialogue is still utilized at points to craft characters and their relationships, this helps deliver a lived-in ambience to the characters and story.
The crux of The Covenant is the relationship between John and Ahmed, and Ritchie gratefully brings a balanced perspective each character. Much of the first act is dedicated to John and his skepticism of Ahmed, while the second act is focused on Ahmed and his unwavering determination. This brings a balance to the friendship in the eyes of viewers and helps elevate the stakes in the final act.
While we follow John for most of The Covenant, I found myself enraptured with Ahmed’s story, not only because The Covenant is one of the few Hollywood films to center an Afghan character within this context, but also because of a gripping and largely non-verbal second act that showed off the talents of Dar Salim. There is a balance that the Iraqi actor brings to the character of Ahmed, demonstrating dignity and strength, while letting an emotional vulnerability seep in as well. Gyllenhaal is also strong in the role of the frustrated and determined John, albeit his lines and arc seem more generic in the context of the modern war movie cannon, and thus his character pales in comparison with Salim’s freshness.
Being liberated from the blockbuster or mid-budget studio exigencies, Ritchie plays around with his style in The Covenant, bringing us immersive camerawork, such as a one-take escape sequence, while also falling prey to the use of shaky-cam. I was pleased to see Ritchie take his time with a focus on character and ambience instead of virtue-signaling or action thrills. The runtime clocks at just over two hours, but never once did I look at my watch, as Ritchie kept a steady and healthy pace.
In the end, Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant is a rare solid modern war film, this one bringing a freshness thanks to the focus on the relationship between Afghan and American characters. The latter portion of The Covenant might fall into predictable war movie territory, but it isn’t cheesy enough to draw back from the stronger elements. The Covenant proves to be Guy Ritchie’s strongest film in years.