Join the discussion on

" There will be no shooting without my explicit instruction "
— Bruce Greenwood (as Robert F. Kennedy), Thirteen Days

MRQE Top Critic

Creed II

It's all about the importance of character and the ability to face life's challenges. —Matt Anderson (review...)

Creed II

Sponsored links

Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant keeps the action subdued while sending a message loud and clear: even in war, there is still honor.

Interpreting a War Zone

Sgt. Kinley and Ahmed
Sgt. Kinley and Ahmed

Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant revolves around the U.S. in Afghanistan. Opening title cards note 1,300 U.S. troops were sent to Afghanistan on Oct. 7, 2001, in response to the attacks on Sept. 11. That number mushroomed to 98,000 during the ensuing years of what became another never-ending war. Among those supporting the troops were a staggering 50,000 interpreters.

That sets the stage. It’s March 2018. During an attack on Sgt. John Kinley’s team, an interpreter is killed. Kinley (Jake Gyllenhaal) recruits a replacement in a straight-talking mechanic named Ahmed Abdullah (Dar Salim).

Ahmed has a rather sordid back story. He used to trade in heroin. And the Taliban murdered his son. He’s world-wise and cautious. He has a sixth sense for deception — and he’ll quickly prove to be Kinley’s most valuable recruit.

John and Ahmed forge a relationship out of duty and necessity; the one would likely not be the first choice to hang out with for the other. But, during an ambush setup by a traitor within Kinley’s ranks, Kinley is wounded and unable to fend for himself.

Ahmed goes to great lengths — Herculean in effort and endurance — to return John to Bagram Air Base. In return for his services as an interpreter, Ahmed was expecting U.S. visas for his family and that’s where the story locks in on its target: debts made should be debts paid.

Substance over Style

This is Guy Ritchie working at his most sober and retrained, all the while still producing a movie worth watching. His signature style of action — established in his early movies like Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels right on through more recent productions, such as Sherlock Holmes, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword and Wrath of Man — is cutting edge, generating a certain level of energy and intensity while also being uniquely identifiable as a Guy Ritchie approach.

Here, there are moments that build anticipation for that style. Even further, there are times where a less focused, more “Hollywood” director would resort to a “Rambo” moment of cheer-worthy heroics, action staged to elicit shock and awe — and applause — in audiences. There are scenes that could easily call for a John Williams hit of sweeping orchestral accompaniment.

But, no. Aside from a flashback sequence that gives heightened attention to Kinley’s struggle to stay alive through edits and camera movements that brush up close to classic Ritchie, Ritchie stays focused on a clean, grounded presentation to help audiences also keep their eyes on the prize. He has a story to tell and a point to make.

Taking stock of Ritchie’s career, he’s proven himself to be one of the most flexible and adaptable directors out there. His Sherlock Holmes movies (earning more than $1 billion between the two) feature a rough-and-tumble version of the detective in a highly stylized Ritchie world. And his live-action Aladdin (hauling in $1 billion on its own) proved Ritchie could ditch his identity in favor of following a Disney blueprint. Despite those huge successes, Ritchie remains comfortable working in ensemble, character-driven productions like The Gentlemen and here with his Covenant.

Do the Right Thing

A survival trek
A survival trek

Ultimately, Kinley makes it back to his home and family in California. He recovers, physically if not mentally. And that’s where the story builds its substance.

Back in Afghanistan, Ahmed’s heroism has raised the ire of the Taliban; he and his family — his wife and his newborn son — are on the run. Their world is shrinking as they move from village to village; their time is running out. As for Kinley, he feels like he’s got a hook in him, pulling him back to Afghanistan to pay a debt and extract Ahmed and his family from a nasty situation. That’s also when Gyllenhaal sinks his hook into his character.

Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant is a serious adventure and its story had the potential to elevate itself up to the ranks of top-tier war movies like Apocalypse Now, Platoon and Saving Private Ryan.

The end result doesn’t quite rise to that level; it needs a little more punch to land with that magnitude of impact. Closing title cards call out the U.S. exit from Afghanistan in 2021. The aftermath included the murder of 300 interpreters by the Taliban. But it comes across as a soft-shoe dance around a politically volatile topic.

Certainly, there are the haunting aspects of what a soldier leaves behind on the battlefields, the obligations that are cast aside in the sweeping movements of combat. In the tragic romance of Madame Butterfly as reimagined in Miss Saigon, the lead characters are depicted moving on with their lives halfway around the world from each other. In the U.S., a soldier moves on with his life. Back in Vietnam, a woman is left to raise a child on her own in the turbulent times of Ho Chi Minh.

Ritchie touches the surface of a similarly messy, traumatizing world, in this case Kinley leave behind Afghanistan and a more to whom he owes a debt of gratitude — to say the least — for keeping him alive despite considerable personal risk.

Still, more could’ve been made of Ahmed’s ongoing hardships. Aside from having to constantly be on the move, he seems content with his latest gig as a mechanic, almost oblivious to the dangerous restrictions being placed on his own well-being. There should’ve been a greater sense of the suffocating environment Ahmed was enduring.

The irony of it all is this: the material might very well have benefited from more of that classic Ritchie style. The Covenant is almost too restrained.