Ritchie Makes a Mean and Meaningful Military Movie

R | 2h 3m | War, Drama | April 21, 2023

“Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant” stars Jake Gyllenhaal as U.S. Army Sgt. John Kinley, top-dog of an elite, hunter-destroyer taskforce designed to demolish Taliban weapons outposts.

A weapons-destroying squadron in Guy Ritchie's The Covenant
Afghan interpreter Ahmed (Dar Salim, L) and Sgt. John Kinley (Jake Gyllenhaal, front-center) in “Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant.” (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

Following an ambush, Afghan interpreter Ahmed (Dar Salim) undertakes a truly Herculean mission, schlepping the wounded, nearly-dead Kinley halfway across Afghanistan, over mountains and through the underbrush, on a makeshift gurney, and then a rickety wooden cart, with the Taliban in hot pursuit.

man with pushcart in Guy Ritchie's The Covenant
Afghan interpreter Ahmed (Dar Salim) trundles Sgt. John Kinley (Jake Gyllenhaal) over hill and dale to save his life, in “Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant.” (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

When Kinley later learns that Ahmed and his family were not given safe passage to the United States as promised, he, like all American special operations personnel who operate under the powerful code of conduct of never leaving a man behind, heads back into the Afghanistan war zone “Sandbox” to single-handedly make good on that promise, before the Taliban can hunt them down.

Hence the title with “Covenant.” But why is it exclusively Guy Ritchie’s “Covenant”? Because director Guy Ritchie’s giving notice to the world, herewith, that this is an about-face from his usual schtick (and I say schtick very fondly) of hilarious, Cockney-insult-spewing, underworld British tough-guys. This is his first foray into serious fare. And it’s an extremely good fit.

two Army men in Guy Ritchie's The Covenant
U.S. Army Sgt. John Kinley (Jake Gyllenhaal, L) and Sgt. Declan O’Brady (Alexander Ludwig) trade friendly insults, in “Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant.” (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

‘Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant’

In keeping with Ritchie’s style, all the squadron soldiers are introduced via pop-up graphics listing their names and nicknames, heralding, one imagines, classic Ritchie alpha-male one-upmanship banter. However, its all fairly subdued and grounded in order to serve the serious subject matter, and realistically portrays an elite military brotherhood ready to lay down their lives for each other. Ritchie’s just gearing up to tell a good tale.

After Sgt. McKinley’s previous interpreter is killed by IED (improvised explosive device), he runs auditions for the position, and Ahmed joins the squad—a position employing multilingual locals with the promise of travel visas out of Afghanistan afterward. Obviously, interpreters are used to investigate the whereabouts of IED’s, but Ahmed goes above and beyond, at one point testing Kinley’s patience when he insists another Afghan squad member is lying and rerouting them into an ambush.

two men and car engine in Guy Ritchie's The Covenant
U.S. Army Sgt. John Kinley (Jake Gyllenhaal, L) and Ahmed (Dar Salim) discuss leads on Taliban weapons caches, in “Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant.” (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

The explosives are ultimately found, but had Kinley trusted Ahmed instead of assuming he was overstepping his bounds, the situation wouldn’t have gone south and racked up a body count on both sides. As Ahmed explains later, he’s not a “translator,” per Kinley’s description of his job. He’s an interpreter. There’s a difference: He’s got people-reading and detective skills.

After a big shoot-out set piece at a remote mine-shaft, Sgt. McKinley and Ahmed, isolated and outnumbered by the ruthless Taliban, and deep in “Indian Country,” make an escape and take turns looking out for one another. This involves a sustained stretch of tense action, with sporadic shootouts and stealthy knife kills, as well as various commandeered-vehicular chases and some very fine drone shots that capture the natural beauty of the Afghan hinterlands.

two men arguing in Guy Ritchie's The Covenant
Afghan interpreter Ahmed (Dar Salim, L) being chastised by Sgt. John Kinley (Jake Gyllenhaal) for losing his rifle in a long slide down a mountainside, in “Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant.” (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

And then, of course, the meat of the tale—Ahmed’s Sisyphean schlep of Kinley’s wrecked, hallucinating near-corpse, while placing himself deep in danger by doing the right thing with awe-inspiring fortitude.

man with bloody face in Guy Ritchie's The Covenant
Afghan interpreter Ahmed (Dar Salim, L) hides Sgt. John Kinley’s face (Jake Gyllenhaal) with a robe to hide him from the Taliban in “Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant.” (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

Gyllenhaal’s and Dar Salim’s portrayed brotherly bond is riveting as they valiantly trade center stage in the electrifying crux battle scenes that bolster this emotionally draining narrative. This is the type of thing military men live for.

The remainder of “Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant” concerns the aftermath; showing John McKinley dealing with endless bureaucratic red tape and, maddeningly, being put on hold, while trying to repay his debt to Ahmed.

Army Colonel on phone in Guy Ritchie's The Covenant
U.S. Army Colonel Vokes (Jonny Lee Miller) mostly looks the other way to allow Sgt. John Kinley (Jake Gyllenhaal) to bypass excessive bureaucratic paperwork and get results, in “Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant.” (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer).

While there’s obvious respect, admiration, survivor’s guilt, and a bone-deep drive to return the favor of doing the right thing, Gyllenhaal’s portrayal of Kinley’s PTSD is a bit lukewarm in the stretch building to the final action-packed sequence. However, the juxtaposition of Ahmed’s destitute young wife and baby with Kinley’s well-off wife running the family business of selling vintage American cars and Harley-Davidsons is powerful.

man and woman talking in Guy Ritchie's The Covenant
U.S. Army Sergeant John Kinley (Jake Gyllenhaal) and wife Caroline Kinley (Emily Beecham), in “Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant.” (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)


“Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant” is easily one of the director’s best films, unlike anything he’s made previously. Most of his familiar trademarks (hyperactive editing, thuggish humor, style-over-substance) are either M.I.A. or tailored to fit a serious military drama that has nothing to do with American jingoism (as it’s being currently accused of) and everything to do with valor, courage, honor, and the profound devotion of military personnel who serve alongside one another in times of war.

two men shoot guns out of a doorway in Guy Ritchie's The Covenant
Army Sgt. John Kinley (Jake Gyllenhaal, L) and Ahmed (Dar Salim) make a last stand on a bridge, in “Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant.” (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

Most importantly, Ritchie is clearly sincere about exploring this little-known covenant between U.S. Army personnel and its interpreters, that found themselves joining the ranks for a range of for reasons, such as hatred of the Taliban and/or the desire to exact revenge on them for killing family members, money, and the desire to obtain an American visa.

Granted, the screenplay doesn’t drill down too deeply into any one of these complex dynamics, but via this subject matter Ritchie’s not only managed to find a refreshing angle to explore this particular war, but also refreshingly reinvented his directorial wheelhouse. I’d like to see more Guy Ritchie spec ops military movies, loaded with full clips of his unparalleled, hilarious, irreverent, manly-man humor.

Movie poster for “Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant.” (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
Movie poster for “Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant.” (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

‘Guy Ritchie’s the Covenant’
Director: Guy Ritchie
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Dar Salim, Alexander Ludwig, Antony Starr, Bobby Schofield, Emily Beecham, Jonny Lee Miller
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 2 hours, 3 minutes
Release Date: April 21, 2023
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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