Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant (2023)

Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant or simply The Covenant is a wartime action thriller co-written, directed and produced by the celebrated filmmaker from the title. Richie was very valuable considering that four months ago was the premiere of his film Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerrea spy action comedy that did not go over well. The Covenant was released in theaters on April 21 by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures and was uploaded to the streaming platform Amazon Prime.

The story is set in Afghanistan in 2018 and follows a US Army special operations team led by war veteran John Kinley (Jake Gyllenhaal). His unit is tasked with finding and disrupting Taliban operations in the production of improvised explosive devices. In the opening scene at a checkpoint, a soldier and a local translator working for US forces are killed by a truck bomb. Despite these sacrifices, life goes on and work continues for John and his team, so they find a new translator, Ahmed, who has a reputation for being a bit difficult to work with.

Essentially, the story, theme and emotional impact of this film revolves around a moral imperative – when someone saves another’s life, that person owes their life to their savior. The Covenant through the presentation of the complications of politics, history and the consequences of the US war in Afghanistan, something so unquestionable is reached that it is essentially an infallible, universal truth.

The screenplay by the three authors is a work of fiction, unless it is a confidential true story of which there are no public records. That doesn’t detract from its effectiveness, of course, but it’s worth noting, if only because movies, especially lately, seem to have “trained” us to believe that only dramatizations of true stories are worth telling. Most of those dramatized real-life stories end up being fiction anyway, so it’s somewhat refreshing to watch a story that looks like it could have really happened and learn that its meaning, as well as its seeming authenticity, are the results of a well-written script.

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The introductory text reminds us that since October 2001 several hundreds of thousands of American soldiers served in Afghanistan, but also that there was a significant number of local translators who worked either directly for the American army or as part of the Afghan army. They were promised special US visas for themselves and their families when their service or the war was over – that’s the background of this story and all the screenplay needed to deliver its idea and dramatic purpose. This is a smart move that avoids any political, ideological or strategic controversies that might arise and narrows the focus directly to the numbers, as well as the vital and dangerous role of interpreter-translators in this war conflict.

One of them is Ahmed whom John chooses to serve as his team’s new translator. Ahmed is an open-minded man with experience as a mechanic and is knowledgeable about the local population and its complex business dealings with the Taliban. He comes into conflict with his commanding officer over the issue of paying off a possible informant and the suspicion that an Afghan soldier is in cahoots with the Taliban, but he regularly turns out to be on the right side of the debate.

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The narrative here is clearly divided into two parts, with the first part describing how the team works, John’s determination to get the job done right, and the growing importance of Ahmed to the accomplishment of that mission. Through these scenes, we see their search following misinformation or wrong leads, but also the mutual understanding and respect between John and Ahmed, who, it turns out, has deep wounds from the past that he bears stoically.

The script is filled with sentences that give us the core of what makes these characters who they are. There is also military jargon, the terminology of which is explained on screen because the soldiers who speak it do not have the time or opportunity to explain it to the audience. Gyllenhaal and Dar Salim, a Danish actor born in Iraq, have a solid presence in their roles and are especially good in scenes where short statements or unspoken feelings speak louder than a thousand words.

I won’t write anything concrete about the second half of the movie to avoid spoilers, although you know what’s going to happen if you’ve watched the trailer or read the description on IMDB. What I can say is that it begins with a fierce and chaotic firefight that unfolds with a frightening sense of confusion, and continues with a chase across the inaccessible terrain of the Afghan state. We follow acts of physical endurance and sacrifice that are worthy of respect simply because they are done reflexively, without question and with little or no concern for the safety and well-being of the man performing the arduous task.

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I would say that the story found its natural ending with the climax taking place sometime after the halfway point of the film. However, the filmmakers do not see this as a conclusion but as a question that needs to be answered. There’s a long series of scenes where John realizes through phone calls that he’s fighting a system that doesn’t work, and when the system fails it’s up to individuals to do what needs to be done. The central question of the second part of the film is how to pay off the debt, and when the time comes to pay that debt, it is not a question at all for the character who owes it, as there is no doubt about the correctness of the act that led to it.

Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant is a superbly acted war action thriller that tells a relatively predictable but surprisingly dramatic story of friendship, loyalty and the realistic horrors of war.

my final rating: 7/10

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