Friday 9 June 2023

On demand: "Guy Ritchie's The Covenant"

I know: your first, snarky reaction is that the movies must be in a mess if they're now allowing Guy Ritchie - of
Snatch, Revolver and The Gentlemen infamy - to insert his own name in the title of his films as a selling point, much as Fellini did 50 years ago. Yet Guy Ritchie's The Covenant has clearly been conceived as - how to fathom such a concept? - mature-period Guy Ritchie, picking up where that Noughties run of brow-furrowing, mostly indifferent American studio movies about US intervention in the Middle East left off. Ritchie parachutes us back into Afghanistan as it was in March 2018, when hopes for lasting peace were rapidly dwindling or already abandoned, and centres the film on the relationship between Master Sergeant John Kinley (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his latest Afghan translator Ahmed (Dar Salim), who has pre-existing beef with the Taliban. This balancing formulation presents as an improvement of sorts on that first wave of Gulf War II movies, which were by and large undertaken by creatives who, for reasons of political expediency or domestic audience courting, were compelled to keep the Pashto-speaking population at arm's length and instead privilege the sufferings and trauma of (mostly) white military personnel. At a moment when Disney's blaxploitation Little Mermaid is causing consternation among the dunderhead division and the bigot brigade, it may be more surprising yet to find Guy Ritchie going woke. But this, it turns out, isn't the last of The Covenant's surprises.

It would still be identifiable as a Guy Ritchie war film even without that title, built as it has been not on the rigorous reportage of a Zero Dark Thirty but the thick-ear prose of someone who likely devoured Bravo Two Zero, and who maintains Johnny Mercer-like Mates in the Military. The Ritchie understanding of overseas service is inevitably homoerotic, from an early discussion of mess-tent dining options ("Nothing wrong with a little sausage") to the slang deployed for money paid to informers ("lube"). The opening half-hour struggles to get past one major script-imposed obstacle: that one of Kinley's right-hand men goes by the nickname Jizzy. (Gyllenhaal, amid one ambush: "Fuck, Jizzy! Jizzy!") Still, there remains a lot that works here: The Covenant stands as Ritchie's least worst film for some years, if not decades. It works within limitations, granted, and if you're looking for knotty or nuanced political argument, you should probably keep looking. Ritchie has alighted upon this narrative - and the real-world events that inspired it - as an opportunity to head into the desert with his boys, play with military hardware, and stage exactly that action American movies now routinely run on (because, presumably, a section of the audience demands it). What's crucial is that Ritchie's action here is vastly more coherent and involving than it was circa those abysmal Sherlock Holmes movies. In the central stretch, as Kinley and Ahmed are separated from their patrol and pursued through Taliban country, you both see and feel a once-slipshod and slaphappy filmmaker recalibrating his effects, and making something like the kind of pulpy B-picture he might usefully have cut his teeth on after swanking off to Hollywood on a cloud of scarcely justified self-belief.

Again, it's not without inbuilt simplification, but it's a proven format - a Defiant Ones-like buddy movie - bolstered by performers who capably sell you on the growing bond between understandably suspicious men. Salim lends Ahmed a coolly level head vital for a character negotiating between his uniformed paymasters, fellow countrymen who see him as traitorous for assisting the occupiers, and fundamentalist goons who want that head on a pike. (It's a touch convenient Ahmed should also be a crack shot, but it generates the movie's most dynamic setpiece.) Fatigued in all senses, Gyllenhaal retunes those big eyes towards weariness, and lets the tiredness show through: when he's knocked out by his pursuers, an expression flickers across his face that almost registers as blessed relief. There's some Ritchie-ish overkill as the character returns home, juggling PTSD with Washington bureaucracy and trying to retrieve Ahmed from a similarly tight spot: the use of opium as pain relief cues trippily baroque in-country flashbacks. But the homefront scenes do burn with that anger surrounding the mismanagement of the Allies' withdrawal from Afghanistan, and - heaven knows how Ritchie and co-writers got here - they hand Gyllenhaal one of those radical, eloquently outraged howls Paul Laverty typically pens for Ken Loach ("Pay your debts"). Perhaps most unexpected of all is Ritchie's belated discovery of delicacy and emotion. Endure that early sixth-form sniggering (which is one way of hooking the post-pub viewer, I guess), and The Covenant reveals itself as an affecting love story between two men facing obliteration by the forces of hate - not far from a Brokeback Mountain with bigger guns. (Is it just coincidence it should debut here in Pride month?) I know, I know: by allowing Ritchie to make films for streaming platforms, the movies may have found an analogue for that old saying about monkeys and typewriters. But if I were Guy Ritchie, and I'd made a film this potent, I'd insist on putting my name in the title, too. Against all odds, Guy Ritchie's The Covenant really is one to be proud of.

Guy Ritchie's The Covenant is now streaming via Prime Video.

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