“The Covenant,” billed as “Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant” so that it isn’t confused with any horror movie titled that, has little of the antic energy and none of the dark, wry fun of the British underworld pictures that made him (“Snatch”) or that characterized his jaunty “Sherlock Holmes” outings with Robert Downey Jr.
But as we settle into this Afghan War story of an American sergeant (Jake Gyllenhaal), his Taliban-arms-and-IED hunting team and his uneasy relationship with their new interpreter (Dar Salim), we see the movie bend away from genre routine. “Covenant” evolves into a tale that travels from mistrust and disrespect towards loyalty and the debts a soldier collects in combat, a “covenant” that eats at this one GI until he can honor it and repay those debts.
Ritchie’s giving us a modern American take on “Gunga Din,” a fictional US military spin on themes from other classic tales of combat valor, the “code” of such men and the psychological cost of survivor’s guilt.
Ritchie makes the violence abrupt yet constantly hanging over the combatants, the fear of betrayal by “allies” palpable and Sgt. John Kinley’s journey one from annoyed tolerance to all-consuming guilt. Kinley cannot forget the way an Afghan like Ahmed (“Game of Thrones” and “Operation Curveball” veteran Dar Salim) risked his life and that of his family to save “Infidels” like Kinley and his men from Ahmed’s own countrymen. The fact that Ahmed was left behind when the promise of a visa to America was part of his deal becomes Kinley’s post-service mission.
The first act sees Kinley’s squad lose two of their own — a combatant and their interpreter. It’s 2018, and their endless search for improvised explosive device factories and Taliban arms caches is deadly detective work, with mistrust of every Afghan — even those in the Army’s employ — a part of the bargain.
Ahmed passes himself off as multi-lingual interpreter, a world-weary and war-weary man perhaps with grudges against the fanatical, murderous Taliban. He says he’s an expert with “engines,” which seems dubious. And when he pokes holes in the intel and the methods of Kinley’s squad, he gets serious “out of your bounds” pushback from the sergeant. That goes on even after Ahmed, who under-translates (leaving out the threats made against him and his family by suspects), proves to be a lot more streetwise than advertised.
Ahmed can read people and read a room, discern a committed killer from a simple everyday countryman with a taste for the pipe.
“I am…a man about town,” he says, by way of explanation.
Ahmed questions decisions, calculates trustworthiness and makes “deductions” that contradict Kinley. Being right all the time makes him a bit of a pain, but gets this team out of more than one jam. Grudging respect comes in baby steps.
The first act of “The Covenant” is about that process, the firefights that result and the ambushes avoided until that one mission “too far” arrives, as it inevitably does. A second act lets us see Ahmed resigned acceptance of an impossible task, a noble act which Kinley will not allow to go unrewarded.
And the third act takes us into the extreme measures that Kinley is willing to take to repay that heavy debt he carries.
The lead performances are all top drawer, with Salim excelling at letting us see the wheels turn even as Ahmed hides most of his cards, giving them up only slowly. Emily Beecham is terrific as the wife and mother “back home” who doesn’t question her husband’s quest. Jonny Lee Miller holds his own as a canny commanding officer who’s learned to look the other way as the need arises.
Spain makes a most scenic substitute for Afghanistan and Ritchie uses the terrain, the technology (occasional digital aircraft) and the situations to maintain tension and suspense in scene after scene.
There’s an expediency to this narrative, one that dispenses with fleshing out most of the supporting characters and back stories and earlier “debts,” that plays around with the conventions of Middle Eastern combat narratives. The firefights are pitiless and realistic even if “the test” of the second act and “the quest” of the third strain credulity.
But the movie’s messaging has a righteous and educational undertone that makes this a worthy addition to the genre. It’s a “Lone Survivor” with better performances and a timeliness that means that the audience that shows up for such a film will be exposed to points of view they might not have considered, that this drawn-out and bitterly-wasteful war had heroes, and not all of them wore a stars and stripes patch on their fatigues.