THE STORY – During the war in Afghanistan, a local interpreter risks his own life to carry an injured sergeant across miles of grueling terrain.
THE CAST – Jake Gyllenhaal & Dar Salim
THE TEAM – Guy Ritchie (Director/Writer), Ivan Atkinson & Marn Davies (Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 123 Minutes
So many storytellers have tried desperately to mine some authentic piece of commentary out of the seemingly endless military conflicts in the Middle East that have occurred since the start of the century. There is obviously a great deal of potential to uncover powerful portrayals of a complicated political landscape against the humanitarian crisis exacerbated by foreign intervention. Yet, many have struggled to present an appealing portrait, particularly in a medium that must invent its scenarios and cannot pull directly from the involved sources like a documentary can accomplish. “Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant” is another attempt to find meaning in this sea of despair by illuminating a more hopeful situation. However, its results are just as mundane as many efforts which preceded it.
Set during the height of the conflict within Afghanistan, the film follows Sargent John Kinley (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his unit tasked with seeking and destroying weapon hubs operated by the Taliban. An interpreter is obviously needed to accomplish this, and Ahmed (Dar Salim) has been assigned to the group. It’s a rocky start between the two at first, with Ahmed resisting the authority that Kinley demands to be recognized. However, Ahmed’s skills and intuition prove themselves useful in avoiding dangerous circumstances. When intel leads them to a more robust facility, it brings about an ambush that kills everyone except Ahmed and a significantly wounded Kinley. The two cross treacherous terrain and barely make it to safety. Yet, even after Kinley is sent home, he wrestles with the fact that the man who saved his life is living underground and still in danger. He knows the only way to repay this debt is to go back and get Ahmed and his family out on his own.
Despite the official title bearing his name, this is actually not the type of project that feels very akin to Guy Ritchie’s sensibilities. Even when he isn’t focused on irreverent British gangsters, he often employs a flamboyant artistry to create a more bombastic and stylish presentation. Here, the tone is much more stripped back and grounded. This does give the action set pieces a more credible sense of realism, but it also makes the atmosphere thick with an aura of banality. The piece is competently assembled but lacks the vitality to distinguish it from similarly trodden terrain. Those lacking aspects occasionally flare up in the second half, where the depictions of the traumatic flashback memories are like frenzied hallucinations. These touches are what Ritchie is more known for, and they are effective in crafting a more engaging composition. Still, those moments are few and far between, leaving a tedious pace to fill the void.
Matters are not helped by a screenplay that does little to define itself either uniquely. From the very start, a whole host of characters are introduced with names that pop up on the screen to identify them. However, as one can imagine, they are hardly given any characterization beyond the shallowest of attributes. The endeavor to make more dynamic characters falls wholly flat and utterly pointless, given how disposable they become. The bond between the two surviving men is merely serviceable, occasionally hinting at a grander commentary about the struggle between American forces and the native population that must face the brunt of consequences. Yet, this is never indulged in a satisfying method, and the narrative is a thinly constructed enterprise with little nuance to sustain any intrigue.
Gyllenhaal has always been a fascinating performer, though it must also be said that his bouts of histrionic eccentricities do not always yield the most compelling of actions. Mostly, he plays Kinley as a somber brute with a superiority that mixes with his resentful attitude of being placed in such a volatile position. He rarely breaks from this mode, except when he’s back in civilian life and loudly breaks down from the mental stress. These moments are distracting and less captivating, though nothing concerning what Gyllenhaal does in the other scenes earns much merit either. For a big chunk of the film, Salim is a more active participant, but with him also inhabiting a weakly drawn character with the bare minimum effort to define his motives, he doesn’t leave as much of an impact as he should. None of the supporting ensemble players do much to impress on their own either, a larger fault of the material given to them than any notice of their talent.
The biggest sin that “Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant” commits is how thoroughly unextraordinary it comes across. Even though it showcases a harrowing tale, what’s displayed is a mostly dull affair that rarely manifests a more enticing work. Ritchie’s abilities can craft some engrossing sequences that texture the storytelling nicely, with also a shout-out to the alluring score, but most of the time, he’s somewhat reserved. He does not help the mediocre writing that paints fairly in the lines without any sense of complexity to give the story more provocative layers. With a cast filled with wasted performers, this bid to show yet another facet of this bloody affair ends up feeling quite unfulfilled.