Boy, is Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant good—a riveting, intense, heart-pounding military thriller that packs more punch than any such movie since The Hurt Locker in 2008. And that’s a huge surprise coming from the titular Ritchie, a director who leaves his previous and annoyingly mannered work in the dust with this urgent and powerful film. Ritchie has spent 20 years making alternately giggly and pompous nihilistic bro-heist-crime nonsense, with the occasional break for a dreadful TV-show reboot (The Man from U.N.C.L.E., unwatchable), a horrid two-film conversion of Sherlock Holmes into an action hero in the person of Robert Downey Jr., or a wretchedly distended live-action version of Disney’s Aladdin with Will "Slapsy" Smith as the genie. You’d barely know that Guy Ritchie existed from watching The Covenant.
Aside from one irritatingly overcooked depiction of a post-traumatic-stress-disorder dream, Ritchie’s work here is all but unrecognizable. He suborned his own regrettable insistence on jumping up and down and saying, "Hey, look at me, I’m directing here" and used his technical facility to enrich and deepen the story he is telling. In so doing, he elevates a work of heightened melodramatic realism into the realm of fable.
The story is this: A team of American soldiers circa 2018 in Afghanistan is on its fourth tour of duty searching out Taliban IED factories. They’re led by Jake Gyllenhaal’s John Kinley, who has grown weary of their task because he and his men mostly go around pursuing bum leads and getting nothing done. The team secures a new Afghan interpreter, Ahmed (Dar Salim), a calm and focused man in his 30s who has angered previous American squads because he thinks he knows better than they do. As it turns out, he does, and when he’s not listened to, disaster strikes. Ahmed must take heroic measures to save Kinley, after which Kinley must take heroic measures to save Ahmed.
There are scenes of almost unutterable power here that simply involve driving down a barren road or a desultory moment that suddenly takes an unexpectedly menacing turn. Dar Salim, an Iraqi whose family fled to Denmark and has starred in several celebrated Nordic streaming dramas, is the sensational find here. Gyllenhaal’s Kinley is our stand-in, but it is Salim’s Ahmed who makes clear in every shot just what the stakes are in the battle for his country and in the battle to maintain his dignity and his soul. This is a towering performance, and if MGM knows what it’s doing, it will be planning a campaign that will lead to a best supporting actor Oscar for Salim.
Ritchie says he conceived the movie watching a documentary about the relationships between Afghan interpreters and the American and British military men they worked with. That was long before the Biden administration decided to pull all American forces out of Afghanistan, stranding thousands of Ahmeds—who had been promised visas to America if necessary in exchange for their service—in a Taliban-led nation where they are being hunted and killed.
The Covenant ends up a fable, or an allegory, because by the end, the audience realizes that Kinley is not just an everyman but the best of us—haunted by his obligation and determined to fulfill his responsibilities. Contrast that to how America has behaved since July 2021 toward the Afghans with whom we made a covenant.
Ritchie and his collaborators have made a terrific action movie that puts us to shame.