The Covenant is a furious film trying so hard to send a serious message it blows off its own feet. Even the talents of its capable cast are beaten down by clunky exposition and monologues that feel destined for a strip mall acting class. What it does well is make an argument in favor of something so few would disagree with that The Covenant becomes a political film risking very little while using formulaic action to distract from its insufficiencies.
Jake Gyllenhaal plays Sergeant John Kinley, the most well-coiffed grizzled soldier in Afghanistan. Enter Dar Salim as Ahmed, the new interpreter assigned to Kinley’s unit. Following some initial friction between the two, battlefield bonding brings them together. After a calamitous engagement, Ahmed puts forth a herculean effort to save Kinley’s life which earns him a price on his head. Attempting to repay this debt, Gyllenhaal then battles everything from government bureaucracy to the Taliban.
The Covenant makes an excellent point about the plight of interpreters. Since 2001, “300 Afghan interpreters and their family members have already been killed” for assisting the U.S military. And there are still too many trapped there at risk. Those left behind by the armed forces face a bureaucratic nightmare in their efforts to flee from the vicious retribution of terrorist organizations. The Covenant, however, wants to explore this very real human drama while also being a bang-bang shoot-em-up action adventure. That’s not to say the two couldn’t mix. It just doesn’t mix well here.
Director Guy Ritchie does a solid job with the opening of the film. The difficulties of troops in Afghanistan and the necessity of interpreters is well established. The burgeoning respect between the leads, Salim and Gyllenhaal, is also quietly set up. One of the major firefights is interesting narratively as it shows how quickly things can go horribly wrong. At risk of spoilers, there’s a time bomb ticking down that allows the audience to be aware how rapidly catastrophe ensues.
Unfortunately, this is when The Covenant starts to trip. The movie attempts to have an act that’s a harrowing tale of survival against the odds, but it becomes a fumbled attempt at visual poetry. Spoiler warning—Ahmed’s arduous journey to haul Kinley’s wounded body back to base keeps attempting escalations that never ramp up the tension or intensity. While this could have opened narrative opportunities, it simply becomes watching a man sweat profusely as he strains to push a cart up a mountain. The Covenant slows to a crawl as it dwells on these moments as if unsure the audience understands dragging a human body 126 kilometers is hard.
What’s worse is there’s no established reason for him to go to such heroic efforts for Gyllenhaal’s character. Such lack of motivations frequently impairs The Covenant, tending to make characters seem like concepts rather than living people. That said, the script occasionally offers exposition like someone hurling bricks to build over a poor plot point.
Consider Emily Beecham, who plays Kinley’s wife Caroline. While there is a minimal effort to script some depth for her character, a lot of it feels like a note on the fridge telling her husband to slaughter the Taliban and save Ahmed but be home in time for supper. It’s just another sad example of how little women are represented in Guy Richie movies overall. Emily Beecham’s delivery of some parts could be interpreted as stoic, someone dead inside from enduring the psychological hailstorm of being a soldier’s wife, yet little in the film justifies her emotionless delivery. I’m simply jumping to such conclusions because it’s very obvious what The Covenant wants to be.
It wants to be a movie with seriously deep themes about the human cost of war. However, like so many other characters, Emily Beecham’s struggle is never really presented save for a brief monologue that is the exposition equivalent of a two-ton dump. It’s a lot to process, but there’s no time. The same is true for Gyllenhaal’s struggles with survivor’s guilt, PTSD, and implications of alcoholism, all of which are covered in a single montage. This also allows The Covenant to rocket the maddening frustration of dealing with government bureaucracy without pumping the brakes as it races by every human element to get back to action. Such a pace then turns the attention to the human drama into mere lip service.
While the movie endeavors to keep flowing and does at times, repetitious scenes bog things down as well. The Taliban headquarters feels like a slew of recycled shots. At one point, the entire trek Ahmed made is revisited upside down from Kinley’s wounded perspective. Driving scenes featuring the Afghan landscape have so little to differentiate them locations appear onscreen after cuts to let the audience know this is supposedly a different place now. Such a lack of subtlety pervades The Covenant.
Granted, bluntness can be effective in an action flick. It may sound despicable to some, but The Covenant sets up a genuine thrill during a certain all-is-lost moment when the cavalry arrives, guns literally blazing, and lays waste to advancing bad guys. What seemed like imminent defeat turns into a brutal display of military might that is bound to get circulated on YouTube by everyone who missed the point of Team America: World Police.
The Covenant wants to be a serious war film taking a stance on a contemporary issue. Yet, it never really explores the deeper themes it hurls at the audience like a live grenade. Despite some entertaining action scenes, instead of being a smart thrill ride about a very real issue The Covenant is a gun show masquerading as human drama.