Guy Ritchie turns the action movie The Covenant into a dull military tribute

click to enlarge Guy Ritchie turns the action movie The Covenant into a dull military tribute
The Covenant's shaky patriotic aim misses the mark.

Have Guy Ritchie and Jake Gyllenhaal switched places with Peter Berg and Mark Wahlberg? Maybe that could explain Ritchie and Gyllenhaal's new film The Covenant, a grim, plodding tribute to American military heroism that plays like one of Berg and Wahlberg's true-life patriotism dramas. Although it tells a fictional story, The Covenant recalls fact-based movies like Berg's Lone Survivor and Clint Eastwood's American Sniper, complete with onscreen text of statistics and photos of real people shown during the closing credits.

Releasing a little over a month after Ritchie's last movie, Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre, The Covenant is the opposite of that quippy, globe-trotting spy adventure, almost entirely devoid of humor or cleverness. Instead, it's a slow, straight-faced military drama set in the later years of the American war in Afghanistan. Gyllenhaal plays Sgt. John Kinley, whose unit is tasked with locating and neutralizing sites where the Taliban is manufacturing or stockpiling weapons. After an attack at a checkpoint leaves the unit's interpreter dead, Kinley selects Afghan local Ahmed (Dar Salim) as a replacement, and Ahmed quickly proves to be a shrewd and loyal member of the team.

That loyalty is put to the test during an ambush at a Taliban compound, which leaves Kinley and Ahmed as the only two survivors. Cut off from communications and transportation, with Taliban fighters in pursuit, Ahmed carries the wounded Kinley dozens of miles across the desert to safety, at great risk to himself. Although Ritchie spends the first half of the movie with Kinley, Ahmed and their fellow soldiers, there's little sense of camaraderie or personal connection, so Ahmed's extreme dedication to Kinley lacks emotional resonance. There are some rudimentary family bonding scenes between Ahmed and Kinley and their respective wives, but otherwise they're more archetypes than fully formed characters.

Social commentary has never been one of Ritchie's strengths, and in The Covenant he tries to have it both ways, criticizing the U.S. government for its broken promises to Afghan military interpreters while holding up individual American soldiers and commanding officers as self-sacrificing heroes. Both Kinley and Ahmed are so noble and diligent that they're practically saints, although both actors attempt to portray the internal anguish the characters carry back from the battlefield. After he's rescued, Kinley returns home to California, but Ahmed has to go into hiding with his family, and Kinley vows to do anything he can to bring them safely to the U.S.

In its final third, The Covenant goes full-on Rambo, when Kinley returns to Afghanistan as a one-man army, determined to pay his debt to the man who saved his life. This is more a story of obligation than friendship, and tacking on the dictionary definition of "covenant" at the end isn't enough to create a convincing brotherhood between the two men. Gyllenhaal delivers overwrought speeches about duty and honor, but it all rings hollow.

At the same time, Ritchie remains an excellent director of action, and when he focuses on shootouts and chases, he delivers a tense, gripping thriller. It's easy to understand the danger that these characters are constantly facing, and while the movie's conception of the war may be simplistic, it provides for clear, life-or-death stakes. Ritchie didn't need to adopt Berg's smug sanctimony in order to tell an engaging story about soldiers risking their lives for a questionable purpose.

With a more balanced ensemble, better pacing, and maybe a tiny bit more of Ritchie's typical sardonic humor, The Covenant could have been a solid if forgettable thriller. Instead, it's a dour lecture punctuated by some rousing action sequences. ♦

Rated R
Directed by Guy Ritchie
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Dar Salim

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