The Covenant (2023)

Rating: C

Dir: Guy Ritchie
Star: Jake Gyllenhaal, Dar Salim, Sean Sagar, Emily Beecham

I kinda want to call this The The Covenant Covenant, since it seems like half the soldiers in this action-thriller, have doubled-up on their own nicknames. There’s JJ, Chow Chow and Jack Jack, who are driving around Afghanistan post 9/11, under Master Sergeant John John Kinley Kinley (Gyllenhall) – ok, I might have made that bit up. They’re looking for Taliban weapons caches and IED factories. Oddly, the film feels the need to remind us what IED stands for; I’d presume anyone deciding to watch a film about soldiers in the Middle East would know this. Still, never under-estimate the stupidity of the average movie-goer. I, on the other hand, have faith that readers here need no explanation. Alternatively, Google it.

Anyway, the squad loses their interpreter in a “workplace accident”, shall we say, and the replacement is Ahmed (Salim). He is good at detecting when the Americans are being lied to, and it turns out, Ahmed also has a very personal reason for helping the occupying forces. On a mission deep into hostile territory, the convoy is ambushed while searching a disused mining facility, with only John and Ahmed surviving. They try to make their way to base, and John is injured, leaving Ahmed to, sometimes literally, carry his commanding officer back. John gets repatriated, but the army’s process of awarding visas to interpreters like Ahmed and their families runs perilously slow, leaving them exposed to Taliban retribution. So he goes back in, less officially, to find Ahmed and bring him out.

It’s all rather relentlessly macho. The only female role of any note is Mrs. J. Kinley (Beacham), the little woman whose dramatic contribution is largely limited to a dutiful speech giving her husband permission to do exactly what he was going to do anyway, regardless of her assent. It’s still more than Mrs. Ahmed gets. Otherwise, there’s a lot of scenes in which men with facial hair and/or turbans, chase each other around the Middle East (Spain stood in for Afghanistan during shooting; probably accurate enough, when it came to the plumbing). As a spectacle, it’s fair enough, and occasionally impressive. There just was not much in the way of an emotional connection for me.

Perhaps it was the severe bromance of it all. At times, it felt like an unholy cross between previous Gyllenhall movies, Jarhead and Brokeback Mountain. I’d not have been surprised if John and Ahmed had ended up professing their love for each other, and getting a cabin together in the middle of the countryside. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. This is better when capturing the tense and savage nature of an anti-insurgency conflict, and the final battle, where John and his allies make a stand on a dam against an apparently endless wave of enemies, is genuinely enthralling. At over two hours, I wonder if the initial escape and subsequent return might have been better served by being separate movies. As is, it’s perhaps either too long or not long enough.