‘Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant’ Packs Grit Into a True Story About War and Loyalty 

Two decades since the U.S. invaded Afghanistan and two years since we left, there is a sense that we have yet to truly reckon with what the war meant. In the past cinema has allowed for dramatic reflection from various sides, especially when it came to the generation that processed Vietnam. Until we’re ready to truly undergo that process with Afghanistan, popular culture will make due with movies like “Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant.” It’s the second Ritchie film to hit theaters in the last two months but it’s also one of his best recent offerings. Action is skillfully shot with a lean narrative, propelled by intense performances. Politics are an afterthought, history is mute. Instead, Ritchie tones down his usual flamboyance for a gritty rescue saga pulled from a true story. But even as the action heats up, we sense in the subtext some commentary on the war’s aimless grind. 

Cast with that sad look and subdued ruggedness is Jake Gyllenhaal, who plays U.S. Army Master Sergeant John Kinley. Carrying out operations in the arid, dangerous terrain that is Afghanistan, Kinley has to find reliable interpreters to aid in interrogating suspects or speaking with villagers. It is known the Taliban are deeply embedded in the local population, even as they carry out guerrilla war from the hills. Interpreters are offered U.S. visas for their services, which can also tag them as collaborators. A man named Ahmed (Dar Salim) signs up for the job with the aim of getting a visa for himself and his pregnant wife. But Ahmed has another, deeper reason for wanting to join the U.S. troops. His son was killed by the Taliban. Out in the field, Ahmed still has to carry out a delicate balance of giving Kinley the information he needs even as his countrymen express skepticism over the American mission overall. When an ambush nearly kills Kinley and Ahmed displays his loyalty, it leaves a lasting pact between both men. Kinley will be tested in how far he’s willing to go to deliver on the promise of helping Ahmed and family make it to the United States.

When dealing with the war in Afghanistan, Hollywood has been continuously finding the same story to tell. A favorite topic is stranded soldiers and this movie has some similarities to Peter Berg’s “Lone Survivor,” where Mark Wahlberg plays another real soldier who was entrapped by the chaos of battle. Ritchie’s take is still an improvement over recent efforts like “12 Strong,” even if like that movie, the war here can be reduced to firefights between audible Americans and un-subtitled, ranting Taliban in turbans. Opening title cards briskly explain the war was in retaliation for the September 11, 2001 attacks. Because this is more of a microcosmic action story, it avoids bigger political questions, as in why the war kept going long after Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden had been killed (in Pakistan). The screenplay by Ivan Atkinson, Marn Davies and Ritchie comments on tougher issues but subtly, as when Ahmed tries to reason with Kinley on why locals are so nervous about cooperating. The Taliban may be ruthless, but the Americans are also strangers in a foreign country. There’s a telling scene where a farmer helps an injured Kinley, not because he loves the U.S. army presence, but because he hates the Taliban.

As a thriller “The Covenant” can be stirring with its rugged sense of heroism. Ritchie seems comfortable leaving behind his usual assortment of gangsters and spies. Kinley is simply a decent guy, a soldier, who recognizes he owes a debt to Ahmed after he rescues him. He gets to go back home to a picturesque home run by business savvy wife Caroline (Emily Beecham). To her own anxiety, because she’s married to a man whose job entails he might not return, Kinley makes every effort to go back when he learns Ahmed is marked for helping an American. The usual machine gun dialogue and quirks of Ritchie’s capers disappear. Gyllenhaal’s Kinley is a man driven by a serious, focused intensity, like Jason Statham in “Wrath of Man,” another one of Ritchie’s recent, strong departures. When the master sergeant offers to pay Blackwater-style “private contractors” (what should be honestly called mercenaries) to help him find Ahmed, the movie doesn’t take sides on the issue. It is an example of how far Kinley is willing to go. The sense of duty is so heavy he loses the fear of lashing out at his own superiors.

Dar Salim is also a fantastic casting choice. He has the no-nonsense stare combined with camaraderie fit for drama and action. Ritchie is fascinated by the idea of men (in particular) living on the edge or in the underground. Salim and Kinley operate as chess pieces in the shadowland of geopolitics. They have no say over policy but are impacted by it to dangerous levels. Salim brings empathy to a man who just wants to get his wife out of this country. Would a collaborator be seen differently in a movie made from an Afghan point of view? The same can be asked about films set in Iraq. Ahmed is still seen as an outsider when first riding with Kinley and his troops. But this is a western perspective and even as it doesn’t cheer the war itself, it finds heroism in its characters. That Kinley went back to find his comrade is admirable considering he could have easily stayed in the safety of his U.S. home. The movie’s one damning statement on the war is that many others like Ahmed were not so lucky and were left behind to face the wrath of the Taliban once the U.S. exited the country.

It’s a war movie and so there are many shootouts, explosions and helicopters swooping into frame. Private contractors salivate at being able to use aircraft with large bombs to drop. Ritchie is a great stylist and his use of violence is grittier and also more elegant than a crass distraction. We understand how the battles take place and the geography Kinley and Ahmed need to traverse. Composer Chris Benstead goes for mournful strings rather than adrenaline overkill. It’s another rich delivery from Benstead, who keeps making outstanding work for Ritchie. His music for “Operation Fortune” earlier this year was the movie’s best feature. “The Covenant” is nowhere near the ultimate cinematic statement on what happened in Afghanistan, but it is a riveting story worth telling from that battlefield. Most notably, Gyllenhaal and Salim bring a human touch to all the sound and fury.

Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant” releases April 21 in theaters nationwide.