Jake Gyllenhaal stars in the titular director’s muscular tribute to Afghan interpreters left behind by the US armed forces


Source: MGM

‘Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant’

Dir: Guy Ritchie. US. 2022. 123mins

An attempt to pay tribute to the Afghan interpreters who risked their lives to help the United States military hunt down the Taliban, Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant is a well-intentioned action-drama which is undone by the filmmaker whose name adorns the title. As would be expected from the director of Sherlock Holmes and Wrath Of Man, this muscular war picture boasts some expert set pieces, and Jake Gyllenhaal provides a little soulful earnestness as an American sergeant who develops a friendship with his Afghan colleague (Dar Salim). But Ritchie’s tendency for swaggering overkill proves especially ill-advised for the serious story he wants to tell about how the US turned its back on those who helped its War On Terror, resulting in a hollow paean that’s far more convincing as a generic shoot-’em-up.

The Covenant shines a light on a grim reality but then uses it as an excuse for make-believe

Opening in the US on April 21 through MGM, with a streaming release on Prime Video planned in other territories, The Covenant arrives shortly after Ritchie’s Operation Fortune: Ruse De Guerre, and is a departure from the crime sagas and event pictures that have made his name. A film about the US war in Afghanistan may be a tough sell — especially among American viewers who have largely forgotten about their country’s two-decade occupation of that nation — but Gyllenhaal’s committed performance should raise the picture’s profile.

In 2018, Master Sergeant John Kinley (Gyllenhaal) leads a platoon in Afghanistan, with a mission to track down IEDs and eradicate Taliban forces. After the unit’s Afghan interpreter is killed, John is introduced to Ahmed (Salim), who speaks several languages and knows the landscape and the people intimately. At first John doesn’t appreciate Ahmed’s outspoken manner, but they soon bond when they become the sole survivors of a Taliban ambush, forced to fend for themselves as they try to make it back to base.

Opening and closing title cards underline the shameful track record of the US promising Afghan interpreters safe passage to America in exchange for their service — a pledge that frequently failed to be honoured, stranding interpreters and their families at the mercy of the Taliban. The Covenant seeks to put a human face on that betrayal, presenting Ahmed as a smart, savvy ally who will end up saving John’s life more than once. 

Gyllenhaal and Salim are a likeable on-screen duo, their characters’ relationship born out of mutual respect. John is an elite soldier who has grown frustrated by how little good he’s doing in Afghanistan, while Ahmed has taken the job for the money and for the travel visa that his family desperately needs. They’re no-nonsense men, and the actors make John and Ahmed’s burgeoning rapport believable. Ultimately, they both just want to get out of Afghanistan alive. 

The Covenant doesn’t break new ground as a war picture, although Ritchie (who also co-wrote the script) shows off his ability to deliver consistently arresting action scenes. The film’s gun battles and car chases are propulsive, and befitting the sombre subject matter, the director displays relative restraint by not making the sequences cartoonishly over-the-top — at least early on. As John and Ahmed fight for their lives once the Taliban descend, The Covenant possesses a stripped-down intensity that leans heavily on the gritty urgency displayed by the two actors. 

Unfortunately, Ritchie’s desire to illustrate Ahmed’s bravery eventually leads the filmmaker to indulge in the amped-up theatrics that work better in escapist fare like The Man From U.N.C.L.E. In a story meant to be grounded in realism, the lengths the character goes to save John feel needlessly bombastic, bordering on risible. When John, who is badly injured in the Taliban ambush, wakes up back in America, unsure what has happened, he’ll discover that Ahmed has gone into hiding in Afghanistan, even though the US government said it would help him leave the country. Infuriated, John brashly takes matters into his own hands, setting the stage for an adrenalised and increasingly unconvincing third-act mission in which he nearly single-handedly swoops into Afghanistan to rescue his friend. 

Because there are no actual events that The Covenant is based on, the picture becomes more and more of a fantasy — both in terms of its exaggerated action-movie heroics and in how it peddles a comforting delusion that one righteous warrior is all it takes to right the wrongs of a US foreign policy that abandons those most vulnerable in the regions it invades. Gyllenhaal invests John with real feeling, playing a noble man who won’t rest until Ahmed is liberated, but that sincerity runs counter to a picture that devolves into pyrotechnics and strained dramatic grandeur. The Covenant shines a light on a grim reality but then uses it as an excuse for make-believe.

Production company: Toff Guy 

International distribution: Prime Video

Producers: Guy Ritchie, Ivan Atkinson, John Friedberg, Josh Berger

Screenplay: Guy Ritchie and Ivan Atkinson & Marn Davies 

Cinematography: Ed Wild

Production design: Martyn John

Editing: James Herbert

Music: Chris Benstead

Main cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Dar Salim, Antony Starr, Alexander Ludwig, Sean Sagar, Bobby Schofield, Emily Beecham, Jonny Lee Miller