‘Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant’ Review: The Director Gets Serious — and Ups His Game — in a Stirring Afghanistan War Drama Starring Jake Gyllenhaal (2024)

Last month, to my great surprise, I raved about a Guy Ritchie movie, “Operation Fortune: Ruse de guerre,” as an exhilarating exception to the rule of Ritchie’s style-over-substance, more-frosting-than-cake school of crime-thriller grandiloquence. The film bombed, and more critics than not disagreed with me. But I stand by my assessment of “Operation Fortune” as a diabolically entertaining screwball action-espionage caper. If you want to talk about exceptions to the rule, though, that movie has nothing on the new Guy Ritchie film, which is called(wait for it) “Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant.”

Ritchie’s name was reportedly added to the title because there is already a film in existence called “The Covenant.” But that sounds like an awfully thin reason to suddenly convert Ritchie into a marquee legend, and, in fact, there’s a better reason. Against all odds, he has become one of the best directors working. “The Covenant” isn’t another Ritchie underworld caper. It’s an Afghanistan war drama, and if you’re wondering whether he has made a combat film in some version of the Ritchie style (jazzy violence, fast-break comic-strip dialogue, needle drops), the answer is no. He has put his confectionary flamboyance on hold. “The Covenant” unveils something new: Ritchie the contempo classicist. We’re seeing a born-again filmmaker.

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“The Covenant” is a superbly crafted drama. Ritchie stages the battle scenes with hair-trigger timing and lots of existential machine-gun clatter and the sort of artful framing that puts the audience in the thick of things, without the genre-movie cheating that automatically allows the heroes to kick ass. War is crueler than that, and “The Covenant,” like any good war film, stays true to the scary randomness of combat. Yet the most eyebrow-raising aspect of the movie, in light of Ritchie’s career, is the bone-deep humanity that animates the story. This is a war film dotted with heroism but dunked in despair.

That’s likely to make the film a hard sell. I mean, how many people in 2023 want to see a serious drama about the war in Afghanistan? My guess is: hardly any. But for those who seek it out, I can tell you that “The Covenant” is a lacerating and moving experience.

It’s the story of two men who save each other. U.S. Army Master Sergeant John Kinley (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a platoon leader who’s fair-minded but more than a bit rigid in his by-the-book temperament. Ahmed (Dar Salim) is an Afghan mechanic who becomes the platoon’s latest interpreter (in the opening scene, we see their previous one get blown to bits). Ahmed was once sympathetic to the Taliban, but he turned on them after they killed his son. He’s working for the Americans because he wants out — of the war, and of his country. The U.S. has promised visas to its Afghan interpreters; that’s the end game for Ahmed — winning a right to go to the United States. But the visa approval process is a bureaucratic nightmare, and until then he’s poised between the two countries. As the Americans go door-to-door, hunting for clues to where the Taliban are manufacturing IEDs, Ahmed isn’t just translating words — he’s interpreting moods, what people are saying between the lines. The impulse to do that can make him the master of a situation, and Kinley doesn’t much like that.

“The Covenant” is set in March 2018, as what would become America’s 20-year involvement in Afghanistan was entering its home stretch, and that’s where the despair comes in. Ritchie, like Rod Lurie in his cataclysmic “The Outpost” (2020), has made the rare big-screen drama that takes honest stock of what the U.S. did — and did not — accomplish in Afghanistan. There’s a mythology, going back to the days right after 9/11, and extending into the Bush administration’s catastrophic arrogance in thinking that it could get away with launching the war in Iraq under transparently fake pretenses, that Afghanistan was the “good” war and Iraq was the “bad” war. I certainly buy that Iraq was a disastrously bad war. And I buy that our reasons for going into Afghanistan, on Oct. 7, 2001, were righteous and justified. We were trying to squelch Al Qaeda and kill Osama bin Laden.

But once Bin Laden escaped, which was early on, and it became clear that Al Qaeda training camps could be set up anywhere, the question that hovered over Afghanistan — one that no one wanted to ask —was the same one that hovered over Iraq, and the one that had haunted Vietnam. What, exactly, were we doing there? What were we accomplishing? We failed to “save” the people of South Vietnam from Communism, a mission that was always doomed. In Afghanistan, the mission became: Let’s save the country from the oppression of the Taliban. An indisputably noble goal, but what became clear, I would argue sooner rather than later, is that there was no defeating the Taliban. There was only the day-to-day grind of pushing them back, creating a permanent stalemate. That’s why we were there for 20 years and, had we not cut bait, might have been there for 20 more years.

None of this should be construed as a criticism of our soldiers, who performed with exemplary courage. Yet the awareness that the war in Afghanistan was, like Vietnam, a losing crusade is something that percolates through “The Covenant.” At one point, a character compares the Taliban to a hydra-headed beast, and that’s how they appear in the film, speeding along in their pick-up trucks, wearing their signature head scarves, firing their state-of-the-art machine guns with disarming expertise. They’re relentless, they’re remorseless, and they are endlessly replaceable. They just keep coming. This puts the Americans in the position of fighting a war that’s like quicksand.

In the first part of “The Covenant,” Kinley and his men, having gotten the intel they’re looking for, ride off to destroy a Taliban IED factory that’s about 100 clicks (grunt jargon for kilometers) away. The journey is treacherous; they’ve been set up to ride into an ambush, something Ahmed uncovers because he can sense it. (That he proves right, after some who’s-the-man-here saber-rattling, does a lot to win over Kinley’s respect.) They finally reach the mine, rigged with an industrial bridge, where the Taliban are building explosives. The Americans rig a bomb to blow it all up. But the film already suggests that this will be a Pyrrhic victory; the Taliban will just move their makeshift factory elsewhere. And they’re on to the U.S. forces, who they lay siege to in their ragtag droves.

Kinley and Ahmed escape together. It’s just the two of them, in the middle of that dusty rocky no-man’s land. They’re miles from the U.S. base camp, and the enemy, who consider Ahmed a traitor, are on the hunt for both of them. It looks, briefly, like a “Defiant Ones”/”Hell in the Pacific” situation — your radar may be on alert for overly movie-ish cross-cultural wartime bonding. But this is where Ritchie’s staging comes in. It’s gripping and authentic and never sentimental; it’s about moment-to-moment survival. Kinley winds up seriously injured, losing consciousness, and it’s up to Ahmed to drag him around in a truck, which becomes too obvious a target, so he gives the truck away and reverts to using a wheelbarrow.

Dar Salim, the Iraqi-born Danish actor who plays Ahmed, gives a marvelous performance. He’s one of those actors who can communicate a universe of observation with a glance or a half-smile, and that’s the source of Ahmed’s charismatic strength. He’s a straight shooter, but one who always knows more than he lets on. Salim resembles Vin Diesel, and he has a doggedness that suggests Diesel’s wiser father (though, in fact, the actor is 10 years younger than Diesel); he’s like Vin Diesel implanted with the consciousness of Ben Kingsley. Ahmed is an ace with a machine gun, but it’s because he’s so smart that he turns out to be an instinctive soldier. Watching him outwit the Taliban is outrageously tense and gratifying. And he and Gyllenhaal get a fascinating slow-burn connection going. Gyllenhaal’s quizzical stoic quality, which in certain movies can drive me a little nuts, works perfectly here. He makes Kinley a soldier who has programmed himself, and it’s only after he realizes how he was saved that he changes.

Kinley gets sent back to the U.S., his tour of duty over, but once there he realizes he’s in hell. Ahmed, who has a wife (Fariba Sheikhan) and an infant, has gone underground. The U.S. military is too entangled in its corrupt red tape to do anything for him. And that, Kinley realizes, is an obscenity. Back with his own wife (Emily Meecham) and kids, Kinley can’t live with himself. Only one thing will allow him to go on, and that’s doing what a soldier does. Going back into the war to save his comrade.

This might make “The Covenant” sound like some version of “Rambo” meets “Midnight Express,” but the movie is steeped in a fierceness of loyalty that is all too human. As a rescue thriller, it’s tinglingly suspenseful and real. What gives the film its power is the way that its climactic final act grows out of an organic metaphor for the flawed vision of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. We came in with the best of intentions, but got too lost in the quagmire to follow through on our promise to the Afghan people. And so we stranded them. In “The Covenant,” Guy Ritchie tells a story of two men, but he’s really giving this war that never succeeded a kind of closure. He uses the power of movies to coax out the heart that fueled our actions, and that made our loss so hard to bear.

‘Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant’ Review: The Director Gets Serious — and Ups His Game — in a Stirring Afghanistan War Drama Starring Jake Gyllenhaal (2024)


Is Guy Ritchie: The Covenant a true story? ›

Although Guy Ritchie's The Covenant is not based on one person's true story, it is inspired by historical precedent. In 2016, two years before the events depicted in the movie, The Smithsonian ran a haunting piece entitled, The Haunting Fate of the Afghan Interpreters the U.S. Left Behind.

What unit is Jake Gyllenhaal in The Covenant? ›

Guy Ritchie's The Covenant (or simply The Covenant) is a 2023 American action drama film co-written, produced and directed by Guy Ritchie. The film stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Dar Salim. Its plot follows John Kinley, a U.S. Army Green Beret master sergeant, and Ahmed, his Afghan interpreter, fighting the Taliban.

What is Guy Ritchie's The Covenant movie about? ›

Is John Kinley Ahmed based on a true story? ›

The Covenant is not based on a true story but is inspired by the collective experiences of interpreters and soldiers in the war in Afghanistan. Jake Gyllenhaal's character, John Kinley, is not a real person but is instead inspired by real sergeants who worked with interpreters.

Is The Covenant a true story ending? ›

John Kinley and Ahmed Abdullah. The story,follows an Afghan translator who earns the trust of his American unit and ends up saving Kinley's life only to see Kinley fly back to Afghanistan and get him and his wife out of the Taliban-ruled country, is not based on any real-life account.

How accurate is Covenant? ›

While the film was extrapolated from a patchwork of actual events and experiences that happened during the Afghanistan war, it was not a direct biography of any one person in particular. As it happens, there is no actual person named John Kinley who fought in Afghanistan.

How scary is The Covenant movie? ›

It is a great little thriller, it isn't incredibly scary, but it is not meant to be. This movie is something you have to take for what it is, it's a movie, it's got a good background origins, they have great explanations for things that happen in the film, it connects together well.

Is The Covenant rated R? ›

Guy Ritchie's The Covenant (2023)

Rated R for violence, language throughout and brief drug content.

Is Guy Ritchie's The Covenant worth watching? ›

While this movie is a bit of a slow burn, "The Covenant" remains a must-see for those in search of an authentic, engaging, and entertaining viewing experience.

What happened to Ahmed in The Covenant? ›

Despite the promise of the U.S. military to get Ahmed and his wife (Fariba Sheikhan) and infant son visas and tickets out of Afghanistan — the covenant alluded to in the title — Ahmed is left in the lurch; hunted by the Taliban, he is forced to go into hiding, while John is stuck talking to clerks at the U.S. ...

What are the pictures at the end of The Covenant? ›

The most touching part of Guy Ritchie's The Covenant is the end credits, which feature snapshots of real-life American soldiers and their interpreters.

Was The Covenant filmed in Afghanistan? ›

Guy Ritchie's The Covenant was filmed in Spain, not Afghanistan, but managed to beautifully capture the visual identity of the Middle East. Alicante, a popular tourist destination, was an interesting choice to represent Afghanistan due to its temperate hilly desert countryside.

Is Ahmed from The Covenant still alive? ›

With its explosive and action-packed ending, The Covenant showcases the failed promises of the US military and the redemption possible through Ahmed and his family being saved and given a new life in another country.

Is the ministry of ungentlemanly warfare based on a true story? ›

Guy Ritchie's “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” is indeed based on real events, and real people.

What happened to the interpreter from The Covenant? ›

Interpreters and their family members were kidnapped, tortured and killed for their perceived betrayal against the Taliban, even before the U.S. withdrawal. Once the Americans were gone, they were forced to go into hiding -- and even then weren't completely safe.

Is the Covenant of Water based on a true story? ›

Is “The Covenant of Water” based on a true story? No, the novel is a work of fiction, although it draws inspiration from rural Indian life and traditions.

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