“Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant,” the saga of a U.S. sergeant (Jake Gyllenhaal) honor-bound to his Afghan interpreter (Dar Salim), starts like most other movies about the ultimately unsuccessful 20-year effort to suppress the Taliban. There’s aerial footage of parched mountains, sudden explosions of violence and an outdated wail of classic rock exposing a younger generation’s as-yet-unrealized ambition to make war pictures able to stand alongside those that sprang from Vietnam. Sincerity is an unusual tone for its director, Guy Ritchie, who specializes in laddish shoot-’em-ups. Here, Ritchie is not just earnest — he’s morally outraged about the broken promises made to thousands of Afghans who believed they’d earned Special Immigrant Visas only to be abandoned to fend for themselves. For all its clichés, this furious and discomfiting film tugs on your conscience for days, making a powerful case to turn the American public’s attention back to a conflict it would rather forget.
John Kinley (Gyllenhaal) is on his fourth tour when his squad partners with Ahmed (Salim), a former heroin trafficker, to scour the countryside for bomb manufacturers. During this ain’t-war-hell opening stretch, Ritchie and his co-writers Ivan Atkinson and Marn Davies attune the audience to the use of language, particularly how most soldiers refer to Ahmed as “the interpreter,” as if he’s a tool, not a person. In the field, John is terse and authoritative; Ahmed, intuitive and polite. “I believe you, but they need to believe you,” he advises one local. Back under the goofily dramatic flickering lights of Bagram Air Base, Ahmed presses John on the distinction between “translate” and “interpret” with the acumen — and enunciation — of a Cincinnati lawyer. (Salim, raised in Denmark, doesn’t slather on an accent.)
Then the film pivots. In the second act, the two men are stranded in hostile terrain. Ahmed saves John’s life. Once home in California, John vows to save Ahmed after he learns his protector has been forced into hiding. “I’m on the hook,” John explains to his wife (Emily Beecham), as Gyllenhaal’s watery blue eyes flood with shame. When John braves the State Department’s byzantine phone tree, he soon becomes so irate that he grabs a beer and a hammer. The bombastic rescue attempt that follows is the bitterest form of wish fulfillment — a showcase of individual loyalty intended to embarrass gummed-up bureaucracy.
Ritchie’s action scenes suffer from the gamification of combat: Our heroes shoot first, grab a dead man’s gun and repeat. The body count becomes unconscionably high. Yet we eventually submit to the primal awe of the film’s fraught and nearly dialogue-free escape sequences, driven by Christopher Benstead’s meaty, hand-thumping score. Watching the exhausted Ahmed shoulder John through mud and fog while sharing a long opium pipe for the pain, one can’t help overlaying images of Samwise and Frodo in Mordor. Gyllenhaal’s character becomes so stoned that the film rewinds the first adventure in flashback almost as soon he sobers up — an unnecessary flourish whose sole benefit is letting us relax the second time the same pack of long-nosed Afghan hounds comes sniffing back into view, only now in slow-motion and upside-down. For once, Ritchie might not want the audience to giggle. But in the moment, we’re relieved that we can.
Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant
Rated R for grisly violence and language befitting the circumstances. Running time: 2 hours 3 minutes. In theaters.