Guy Ritchie has made a career out of mostly witty crime films where groups of slick-talking characters ramble on in accents. Couple that with some stylized action, and Ritchie has developed a cult following. He’s occasionally directed franchise films like his two Sherlock Holmes films or the Aladdin live-action remake, but mostly he’s stuck to formula. Ritchie breaks the mold most boldly with his latest, The Covenant. Set in Afghanistan, it is perhaps his most mature work yet, as it focuses on the relationship between a US Army officer and his Afghan interpreter and the bond of brotherhood they form with each other.
It’s not a genre-defining war film, but it showcases what Ritchie is capable of as a director when he has a great script and a willingness to abandon his usual tomfoolery to tell a great story. That’s not to say the film doesn’t still sprinkle some Ritchie-like scenes here and there with characters joking around and cussing. But it is much more restrained than most of his films and aims to be a more straight-forward war film in tone. While simplistic, the dynamic between Jake Gyllenhaal and Dar Salim‘s characters can’t help but rope you in. Neither are based on any one person, but Ritchie’s grounded approach and strong script will leave you believing these were specific people.
That, and the excellent performances. Gyllenhaal’s character is an interesting one. He’s not necessarily a nice guy and is outright suspicious of Salim’s character for a third of the runtime. Even as Salim’s character proves his worth, that gruff manner never really goes away, whereas a lesser film might have a contrived change in behavior. Likewise, Salim’s character is never depicted in an over-idealized manner. The Taliban killed his son, cementing a desire for revenge against them, but his main goal is simply to get his family home. He’s never shown taking any nationalistic concerns or committing to a path of vengeance. Indeed, one of the looming themes comes from the title. It’s about characters who feel obligations — to each other, to their families, to their mission. It’s a film that neither condemns the overarching war nor celebrates it, but is instead about the strength of bonds. The two performers give you two rounded, realistic people to bond with throughout the runtime.
The film really shines in several of its action sequences. A tense sequence featuring the two leads trying to navigate through the desert and escape the Taliban is wrought with tension and intensity. You feel like just one wrong step will result in their deaths. The real peril of danger gives a wonderful weight to the action and a sense of stakes. Ritchie frames his shots perfectly, and in conjunction with fine-tuned sound design, this is a film that feels intense without ever being excessively violent.
The Covenant is not a film with deep or nuanced ideas and themes. But The Covenant is a taste of something that’s been missing at the multiplex: grounded action films with strong performances and a smart script. Certainly, the stamping of the director’s name in the advertising can be seen as a way to try to get people to show up who otherwise wouldn’t. Here’s hoping Guy Ritchie does more like this.