What can one say about the career of Guy Ritchie? The guy was nearly as essential to the rejuvenation of the British film scene in the ’90s as Danny Boyle. His feature debut Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels and immediate follow-up Snatch endure in the cultural parlance to this day. What followed was a series of unfortunate events. A misbegotten Swept Away remake starring then-wife Madonna. An underseen, overambitious existential gangster epic starring Jason Statham (Revolver). Then a “comeback” movie (RocknRolla) that underwhelmed. Cue a successful rescue by Robert Downey Jr. and Arthur Conan Doyle. Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films were hits that brought him back into the Hollywood fold. Nowadays the filmmaker is an elder-statesman-of-sorts: equal parts independent director and company man, he offers up an Aladdin for every Wrath of Man.
Which brings us to Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant, an oddly titled (how many remember the Renny Harlin teen thriller?) throwback actioner based on an incredible true story from the War in Afghanistan. A very game Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Sergeant John Kinley, a soldier rescued by his outspoken interpreter Ahmed (Dar Salim, great here) after a firefight. Once back stateside, he learns that Ahmed is still stuck in Afghanistan and hiding from the Taliban, he and his family unable to obtain the visas the United States promised its interpreters. Distraught, Kinley takes matters into his own hands.
In its best moments, The Covenant plays like an anti-war genre picture from the late ’70s and early ’80s. Political in spurts, intense throughout, and incredibly well-performed, Ritchie’s film moves faster than most modern studio fare. Gyllenhaal fits perfectly, looking as comfortable in uniform now as he looked uncomfortable (on purpose!) in Jarhead nearly twenty years ago. That said, Salim steals the show from his co-lead. His Ahmed is a definitive strong, silent type––the kind of performance that made movie stars way back when. Jonny Lee Miller puts in cynical work as Kinley’s superior, a man not willing to get his hands dirty for the morally right reasons. One is excited for the reliable character actor back-half of Jonny Lee Miller’s career.
Thematically, Ritchie cannot help allowing some ra-ra American Exceptionalism to slip into the third act, an obligatory, somewhat misguided addition landing in direct contrast with the rest of what this movie’s about. It also takes some of the piss out of the brutal, guilt-ridden facts that speak to the number of Afghani people we still have left for dead over there. For the most part, The Covenant is about the bond between brothers and sisters in arms, and the need to rely on each other when systems fail their pledges. Third-act qualms aside, Gyllenhaal and Ritchie emerge as a well-meshed Hollywood duo here. One hopes this is the first of a few collaborations.
Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant opens on Friday, April 21.