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Review: Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant

The second Guy Ritchie movie released this year following Operation Fortune, The Covenant is a departure from the director’s usual blend of colorful characters and flashy editing with a more straightforward and dramatic war story.

Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Master Sergeant John Kinley, who is deployed in Afghanistan in 2018 as part of a team hunting down Taliban IED manufacturing sites.  When a member of their squad and their interpreter are killed in a bombing, Kinley’s squad gets a new interpreter in Ahmed (Dar Salim), who has intimate knowledge of the area and looking for revenge against the Taliban, who killed his son.  While investigating a bomb-making factory, Kinley and his squad are ambushed and Kinley and Ahmed are the only survivors, with Kinley getting severely wounded.  Ahmed takes it upon himself to bring Kinley back to the US base across miles of mountainous Afghani terrain with the Taliban hot on their heels.  One baffling part of the movie is the marketing, with the trailers revealing the entire three-act structure of the movie.  There’s not a lot of tension until the third act because the trailers show the result of Ahmed’s quest to rescue Kinley and it makes that part seem a bit more drawn out as a result.  There’s also a lot of focus on the journey across the mountains and I would have preferred a better balance of getting to know the other soldiers in Kinley’s squad in the beginning and more of Kinley’s quest back in Afghanistan at the end and both seem a little short-changed by the length of the second act.  I get that Ritchie is trying to show how difficult and seemingly impossible the journey is but you could have had a montage and it would have probably been just as effective.  Another nitpick is some of the dialogue, especially in the back half.  The writing in the first half of the movie feels like fairly normal solider banter but the third act feels like a switch is thrown and it turns into True Detective, where characters are giving unnatural-sounding dialogue that probably sounded smart or inciteful on the page but sounds bizarre coming out of the characters, with strange turns of phrase or more flowery than necessary language.  It’s not a huge issue but it does stand out at times.  The action is solid throughout, with some realistic and well-shot combat sequences and some great tension, especially in the scenes following the ambush as Kinley and Ahmed try to sneak past Taliban fighters and there’s a pretty spectacular climactic sequence that brings in a Spectre gunship among other military weaponry.

Jake Gyllenhaal is great as usual as Kinley, although he’s more restrained than in other recent roles.  There is a bit at the beginning of the third act where he gets to use some of his Nicolas Cageesque yelling that is fun but overall it’s a solid performance that may feel a bit more conventional and bland compared to stuff like Ambulance.  Dar Salim is excellent as Ahmed, with Salim giving him quiet dignity and determination and he carries the second act along with literally carrying Jake Gyllenhaal.  One strange miss is Emily Beecham, who I enjoyed in Into the Badlands but I don’t know if it’s the writing or direction but she plays Jake Gyllenhaal’s wife Caroline and they have 0 chemistry, and all of their interactions feel bizarre and forced.  One definite highlight in the third act is The Boys Antony Starr, who plays the head of a PMC squad and brings some very welcome wild card energy to the movie as it’s not clear if he will come through or not when Kinley might need his support.

If you’re a fan of stuff like 12 Strong and Lone Survivor, The Covenant is a solid modern warfare movie with a pair of great leads and tense, well-shot action.  It’s not going to redefine the war movie genre but it’s worth checking out for fans of the genre and it’s an interesting stylistic departure for Guy Ritchie.

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