Review: Inspired by Similar Real-Life Experiences, Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant Is Equal Parts Action Thriller and Human Drama

Although not based on a specific true story, Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant (likely named that so the film is not confused with Renny Harlin’s 2006 supernatural thrill The Covenant) is meant to represent what was clearly a prevalent dilemma after the recent war in Afghanistan ended. Afghan interpreters and their families were promised safe passage to America when the war ended because their lives would have been in mortal danger once U.S. troops pulled out. But few of them actually got to make the journey in a timely fashion, if at all, and many perished as a result.

In this film, U.S. Army Sergeant John Kinley (Jake Gyllenhaal) selects Afghan interpreter Ahmed (Dar Salim) to work with because he spots something scrappy in his demeanor, and later he finds out why: the Taliban killed members of his family and seeks to wipe them all out. More importantly, he knows the region, he understands human behavior, and he’s even able to spot traitors and save American lives in the process. After being tipped off about a major stash of Taliban weaponry, Kinley, Ahmed and a squad get pinned down in an ambush, leaving Kinley severely wounded and the Taliban hot on their heels. Ahmed goes above and beyond to save Kinley’s life, dragging him across unimaginable terrain for a couple hundred miles with the enemy searching for them. Not only do they reach safety, but their journey becomes legend, putting both men on the Taliban’s most wanted list.

In many movies, this journey across the unforgiving Afghan desert and mountains would be the whole movie, but it’s only about the first hour here. The back half of Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant is about Kinley’s crusade to find Ahmed (now in hiding with his wife and baby) and extract them. As much as Kinley’s wife Caroline (Emily Beecham) and their children want him to stay home, they know that John must return to Afghanistan to save the man who brought him home to them. After a great deal of drunken yelling on the phone and meetings with active-duty connections played by the likes of Jonny Lee Miller and Alexander Ludwig, Kinley finally gets his chance to drop back in and locate his savior, even as the Taliban are closing in, knowing full well who they’re chasing down.

Very little about this movie feels like your typical, fast-paced Guy Ritchie movie. There’s no snappy dialogue or clever jokes. Instead, the filmmaker and his team seem intent on keeping things fairly authentic, with both the military speak and the tactics used by the Army. At times, he captures the mundanity of daily life in service, with the full understanding that things could turn dangerous, chaotic and deadly in a matter of seconds. Gyllenhaal does a terrific job of capturing Kinley at both his most intense and most relaxed, with a few ill-conceived sequences featuring overacting when Kinley is getting increasingly frustrated with the red tape it takes to get Ahmed out of harm’s way. A spectacularly staged fight at the end of the film as the extraction is under way is pretty great as an action sequence, but it also felt the most Hollywood of anything in the movie, designed to maximize tension even if it minimizes authenticity.

Still, as a tale of repaying the ultimate debt of life, Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant is a solid story of survival, respect, and honor, while still acknowledging the brutality and senselessness of war. It’s easy to get caught up in this journey, and I think it’s one of Ritchie’s better recent efforts.

The film is now playing in theaters.

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Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.