Actor Jake Gyllenhaal in 'The Covenant'
Actor Jake Gyllenhaal in 'The Covenant' Image Credit: Phars Films

Does anyone remember Afghanistan? Guy Ritchie is here to remind you.

It was only in August 2021 — less than two years ago — that the US pulled its last troops from the country in which we had been fighting for two decades, but it seems like a lifetime ago. So much so that when a character in Ritchie’s new war film set in the country, the affectingly emotional ‘The Covenant’, mentions an IED, the words “improvised explosive device” helpfully pop up on screen. Has it been so long that we’ve forgotten?

On-screen titles are a Guy Ritchie trademark, but this movie does not feel like a Guy Ritchie film, even though the film is officially titled, unnecessarily, ‘Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant’. Compared with most of Ritchie oeuvre, from the outrageous ‘Snatch’ to the rambunctious ‘The Gentlemen’, this one is quiet, introspective, contemplative. (When was the last time you read the words “affectingly emotional” about a Guy Ritchie film?)

Not a typical war film

There is still lots of shooting and violence, but very little of the quippy, winky, nudge-nudgey humor the director is known for, in a screenplay co-written with his frequent collaborators Ivan Atkinson and Marn Davies. Their last work together, the ‘Mission Impossible’-lite action thriller ‘Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre’, was just in theaters last month. How time flies.

It does not fly in ‘The Covenant’.

Ritchie takes more than half the film to set up the premise: After a team led by Sgt. John Kinley (Jake Gyllenhaal) discovers an IED factory in an abandoned mine one hour from Bagram air base, they are attacked by the Taliban, with all of John’s men killed except for their Afghan interpreter, Ahmed (Dar Salim), who escapes the firefight with John. Ahmed is more than a translator; he provides context, insight, advice and nuance in a scary, confusing place. He also saves John’s life, going to extraordinary lengths to help John make it safely home to Santa Clarita, in the process putting himself at the top of the Taliban’s most-wanted list.

Despite the promise of the US military to get Ahmed and his wife (Fariba Sheikhan) and infant son visas and tickets out of Afghanistan — the covenant alluded to in the title — Ahmed is left in the lurch; hunted by the Taliban, he is forced to go into hiding, while John is stuck talking to clerks at the US Citizenship and Immigration Services. When John shouts in frustration, “Can you not put me on hold? I’ve been holding for an hour and a half,” the audience at a preview screening erupted into spontaneous, cathartic applause.

But John is a man of action, and so is Guy Ritchie. You can imagine the violent release that transpires in the film’s second half, which delivers on the implicit promise of the film’s title. CNN’s Jake Tapper, who introduced a screening of the movie before an appreciative, invited audience at the US Navy Memorial’s Burke Theater, reminded the crowd that the film was not a true story, but rather spoke to a larger truth about our failure to live up to our obligation to the Afghan citizens who risked their lives to help us in the war — hundreds of whom are still trapped and at risk in the country.

When was the last time it could be said that a Guy Ritchie film spoke to a larger truth?

This one does, and not without power. Gyllenhaal and Salim are both solid in their roles, and Ritchie shows us — at times with more detail and at greater length than is necessary — just what Ahmed endured to save John. It’s obvious why the American feels an obligation to him. A greater mystery is why Ahmed sacrifices so much for the American officer, who at first is brusque and distrustful of the interpreter. (Ahmed, in his previous career, was involved in his family’s heroin business.) There is a suggestion that Ahmed, who already lost one son to the Taliban, feels a paternal bond with John, who shares the same beautiful blue eyes as his dead child.

Hey, I never said ‘The Covenant’ wasn’t manipulative. It is — skillfully, entertainingly and at times almost overbearingly so. But oh, boy, does it work.

Don’t miss it!

‘The Covenant’ is running in UAE cinemas.