May 28, 2023

Admittedly, The Covenant is less focused on that masculine panic than something like Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, but in brief moments that subversion shines through. The banter is here but is typically undercut by the bleakness of these soldiers’ circumstances. We’re introduced to them casually chatting right before a bomb goes off and kills one of their own. When Kinley goes back and forth with a fellow soldier for reconnaissance info, joking about what a cheap date he is, the two men barely crack a smile. When you’re constantly on the verge of being killed, Ritchie-esque quips feel more like coping mechanisms than anything else. 

The Covenant does see Ritchie pulling back on some of his more fervent stylistic tics, although he still knows how to shoot an action sequence like the best of them. The flashy montage of Sherlock Holmes’ bare-knuckle fight tactics may have been quickly meme’d but they exemplified the technical prowess of Ritchie at his peak: kinetic movement, a real sense of force with each punch landed, and welcome visual cohesion. In The Covenant, you feel the might of every death, and you see them clearly even when the camera is constantly moving. This is a place where nobody stays still, and neither does Ritchie, although he avoids the dizzying shaky-cam tactics of a Paul Greengrass or burst of Bayhem. You don’t get lost watching a Ritchie fight scene. 

Gyllenhaal is the ideal actor for a typical Ritchie film. His best performances see him subverting or outright mocking the cinematic masculine ideal. In Nightcrawler, he shed his handsome exterior to embody the sleazy fury of a fame-hungry sociopath. Brokeback Mountain saw him turn the stoic cowboy stereotype on its head for a tale of forbidden love and the pain of bottling such passions up. Most recently, he gave a surprisingly excellent performance in Michael Bay’s Ambulance, turning what could have been a typical action villain into a bombastic weirdo with trigger fingers and a heavy streak of vanity. But here, he’s deadly serious, and doing good work with those restrictions. Kinley is a by-the-book soldier who is smothered by both the military’s bureaucratic nonsense and the inescapable presence of death. He follows the rules because that’s all he’s supposed to do, and when he decides to go against the grain, his fury at being forced to do so is palpable. 

As Ritchie moves more toward American filmmaking and the current demands of high-budget fare, he’s often struggled to steer past the more stifling studio notes of IP-driven cinema. With Aladdin, which is a rare Disney live-action remake that almost justifies its own existence, he felt too reined in by the notoriously controlling company’s requirements. Rather than bring real zeal or some much-needed change to the film, it was clear that Ritchie had basically been told to recreate the cartoon as much as possible. That movie comes to life when he doesn’t have to do that. 

While Ritchie can’t avoid all of the trappings of the modern war genre—the soldier’s sad wife and kids at home, the drone shots of a desolate landscape, the score tinged with vaguely Middle Eastern sounding strings—he does find an oft-overlooked angle of this deeply scarring real-life conflict. War films love to chew on the tedium of ineffectual bureaucracy but here, the target is sharper.

Salim’s Ahmed, like tens of thousands of Afghans before him, has agreed to be a translator for “the enemy” because they have been offered Visas in exchange for their services. Having lost his son to the Taliban, Ahmed wants to get his pregnant wife to safety, and the promise made by the Americans is seemingly worth the risk. But he doesn’t get it. Indeed, most of the interpreters were essentially abandoned in the country once the soldiers left, but now they had targets on their backs for what the Taliban deemed to be acts of treachery. There’s no way to heroize this fraught legacy of an already bleak moment in American history.

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