When you make a career off of a singular genre and formula, it can very difficult to do anything different. Not that famous directors don’t have the capability of diversity, but Guy Ritchie is particularly unique in that he has never needed nor shown any desire to do anything outside of British gangster films. Sure, there’s the occasional “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” and the ill advised live action “Aladdin,” but those feels more like studio assignment and paycheck than an actual passion project. Given this context and Richie’s overall track record (particularly as of late), you would be right to count out “Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant” as a sort of failed experiment and hit him with the old “stay in your lane” adage.
Shockingly, that couldn’t be further from the truth, as Ritchie seems to have found a genuine knack for taut, straightforward war epics, something no one would really consider him for being good at given his filmography but a risk that pays off tremendously. “The Covenant” is an effective albeit formulaic war action film that delivers the thrills and action, with a story that feels meaningful and compelling and overall thrilling ride you’ll find hard to turn off once it starts.
Directed by Ritchie and written by Ritchie, Ivan Atkinson and Mam Davies, “The Covenant” follows US Army Sergeant John Kinley and his elite unit tasked with seeking out Taliban weapons cache throughout Afghanistan in 2018. After a checkpoint claims the life of his interpreter, Kinley replaces him with Ahmed, a man with a vendetta against the Taliban and a take no shit attitude. Though their relationship starts off rocky, Ahmed and Kinley are the sole survivors of an attack on a cache raid that leaves them both stranded in the Afghan wilderness 100 clicks from the nearest base. After being injured and rendered immobile, Kinley’s life rests in the hands of Ahmed, who travels across the unforgiving terrain to save Kinley. After returning home, Kinley learns that the story of their survival has put them both at the top of the most wanted list of the Taliban, and Ahmed is being hunted by the entire force. Set on paying his debts, Kinley must return to the land that almost killed him to save the man who made sure he made it home to his family.
The most compelling aspect the entire film is simply how focused and well directed “The Covenant” ends up being. Though its framework and base narrative feels often uninspired and formulaic, it’s such a massive departure for the rest of Ritchie’s non-linear manic storytelling you have to appreciate his ability to go against his own tendencies and deliver a thrilling, engaging action film. Sign me up for whatever this new form this hyper focused, linear storytelling method Ritchie is, because I found it to be wildly effective. It almost doesn’t even matter that Ritchie treats the War in Afghanistan as an outsider, making it inadvertently obvious that the nuances and complexity of the war itself is secondary to his overall desire to just make a straightforward, overcoming obstacles action film. There’s enough meat on the bones of this bare bones story to stay intriguing and compelling from start to finish, and Ritchie’s stellar production design and solid cinematography shines bright enough to overshadow the film’s more basic shortcomings.
Ritchie smartly chooses to make the entire second act about the journey rather than skipping over the tumultuous trek as a skippable montage. The patience he shows in the middle part of the film helps validate Kinley’s need to return to the land that almost killed him to save the man who made sure he made it out. While this tapers down the third act as being a bit too easy and not as effective, I have to applaud Ritchie for not making “The Covenant” a third act hyper action extravaganza. One that would invalidate all of the more meaningful attempts at fostering a strong, purposeful relationship between Ahmed and Kinley. Sure, the third act of the film feels a lot like a “Super easy, barely and inconvienence” and removes some of the stakes in lieu of its formulaic unfolding, but the film starts so strong that it doesn’t matter nor does it derail everything as it nears its conclusion.
Jake Gyllenhaal once again turns in another stoic but well of emotion beneath surface performance, showcasing his ability to always be interesting even when the character itself is somewhat bland. I’m on board for Gyllenhaal’s choices recently, opting to take on whatever he wants instead of chasing some kind of clout or award worthy projects. Gyllenhaal deserves more credit than he often gets and is usually the best part of whatever he chooses to do, and you can count me in for Action Jackson Gyllenhaal that his current run seems to indicate he’s into at the moment. “The Covenant” actually takes him out of the story for large parts of it, as he is rendered almost dead throughout the majority of the second act. This leaves it all up to Dar Salim as Ahmed to carry the emotional weight of the story, and Salim proves to be up to task. He carries the film through large swaths of its runtime as much as he carries Gyllenhaal himself, and you believe their bond as it takes shape over the course of a few weeks. The stars shine bright in “The Covenant” and help to elevate any of the film’s uninspired shortcomings.
The restraint of Ritchie and the all in dedication of the cast help make “The Covenant” a gripping war epic, one that, once it gets ahold of you doesn’t let go. Sometimes the most basic stories can still be compelling. We don’t always have to reinvent the wheel to be unique or effective, and “Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant” leans hard into this approach. Rather than trying to put his flair for off beat, wise cracking humor paired with sudden spurts of violence, Ritchie opts to let the overall story breath and tell itself. It’s the kind of film you start watching on TNT because there’s nothing else to watch and end up feeling compelled to see it all the way through to the end. I mean that as a compliment, not a pejorative slander on the TNT movie curation. It’s impossible to not see the made for cable framework of “The Covenant” that proliferates its entirety, but the stellar direction and craft paired with elevating performances help make the film better than it should be and better than one would expect.
I am all for more of these from Ritchie. That’s not to say I don’t love a good “Snatch” rendition, but there’s something fascinating about a director taking huge risks so late in the game and applying his skills to something outside of his wheelhouse. Even more so when that same director is able to do so very well, and delivers a gripping, tense action film that works more often than it falters.
If this is what we can expect from Ritchie when he tries something new, then sign me up for “Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant 2: This Time, it’s Personal.” His next big budget project will reportedly be Disney’s live action “Hercules” adaptation.
Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars
“The Covenant” is now playing in theaters and is available on VOD. You can watch the trailer below.