Being an interpreter for the U.S. army was solid, lucrative work for a local Afghani during the years of the Afghanistan war. But it was also very dangerous work. And in March 2018, Master Sgt. John Kinley’s squad, a group of soldiers assigned to locate enemy IED sites and weapons, was in need of a new local go-between.
That’s when Kinley met Ahmed Abdullah. This guy had a rather checkered history, ranging from being a part of the drug trade to rubbing elbows with the Taliban. But the man’s son had been murdered by that terrorist group. And he displayed something of a sixth sense when it came to local deception. So, Kinley took him on.
In very short order, Kinley realized that the hard-headed Ahmed was a very valuable recruit. In fact, when Kinley’s squad was betrayed by one of their own number, Ahmed was the first to spot it. And when Kinley was wounded and left on the verge of death, Ahmed went to herculean efforts to save his life over the course of several days.
That, however, is when things get particularly sticky for Master Sgt. John Kinley. Because after he’s sent back to the States to recuperate, he realizes that a great injustice has taken place.
In return for his services as an interpreter, Ahmed was promised U.S. visas for his family. But he was shunted aside, left to fend for himself and to stay hidden from the Taliban forces angrily looking for him.
Back when Kinley was wounded, Ahmed could have easily left him behind and saved his own skin. But he made the better choice. He protected the badly wounded American. He hid him, carried him, dragged him over miles of barren terrain to get him to safety.
Now as a civilian, John Kinley has some choices, too. And he can’t help but make the better one.
After all, when promises are made, promises should be kept, debts should be paid.
Kinley and Ahmed are obviously from two completely different cultures and very wary of each other at first. But with time, and due to Ahmed’s repeatedly earnest actions, the two become friends. When Kinley is badly wounded, we see Ahmed endure grueling days of effort to protect him, bind his wounds, do everything to keep him breathing and finally get him to safety. Later Kinley is in anguish over his seemingly inability to secure any help for Ahmed—who is now at the top of the Taliban’s enemy list because of the pair’s escape.
Eventually Kinley’s wife recognizes his emotional struggle and mental torment. Even though it pains her to see her husband leave their family again, she encourages him to remortgage their home and do whatever it takes to rescue his friend. Kinley puts his life on the line in that effort.
Kinley and his wife express their love for one another. And Ahmed shares similar words of love and support with his wife. Kinley approaches a commanding officer he knows and demands that he procure visas for Ahmed as repayment for Kinley’s past actions. “’Cause I know you are the type of man that repays his debts,” he tells him.
A Taliban leader tells his soldiers, “God is with you, not the infidels!”
We see John and his wife sleeping in bed. (She’s fully dressed in nightwear, he’s shirtless.) John kisses his wife goodbye.
The Covenant is a movie of war and brutal violence, and as such there are numerous bloody battles and scenes of perilous danger. Men are shot in the head, face and body, with some executed at point-blank range after falling from a wound. Heavy gunfire rips into trucks, cars and military vehicles. A U.S. transport aircraft flies in and devastates several groups of armed men with its large caliber weapons and missiles. Helicopters swoop in and blaze away at vehicles and enemies with gunfire.
Vehicles (and their occupants) explode after being hit with RPGs and mortar shells. A building full of IED devices erupts in a huge explosion when detonated by a timed explosive. A truck blows up and burns intensely after someone puts a live grenade on its gas tank.
Scores of Taliban fighters and all of Kinley’s squad mates are killed and left scattered about a battlefield during one long battle. And a huge number of armed Taliban men are regularly hot on Kinley and Ahmed’s heels, riddling the scenery with automatic gunfire.
Kinley and Ahmed attack men with knives, slashing their throats, stabbing their upper torsos and choking them to death. Kinley gets shot in the arm, the thigh and then hit in the forehead with the stock of a rifle (his forehead begins bleeding and it is apparent that he has a severe concussion). While clearing out a Taliban weapons site, Kinley’s squad discovers a dead man covered in gore who had clearly been tortured.
During an interrogation, a man tells Ahmed that he will kill him and his entire family and feed his wife to the dogs for betraying the Taliban. Ahmed tackles a traitor and leaves his face bloody. Two men slide down a rocky mountainside, tumbling end over end.
The dialogue is spattered with some 35 f-word and four or five s-words along with several uses each of “a–” and “b–tard.” God’s name is combined with “d–n” on three occasions.
We’re told that Ahmed used to sell heroin. While on the hunt for explosives, Kinley’s squad is sent to an opium den filled with heavily drugged men. Later, Ahmed buys opium to help a badly wounded Kinley cope with his pain. Both of them smoke it.
Soldiers cook barbecue and drink beer. While back in the states, Kinley drinks heavily to deal with his guilt and frustration. He gets blazingly drunk at times, screaming at government officials on the phone.
Kinley and his team break military rules, dress in Afghani clothes and kidnap a suspected Taliban associate to get intel. When desperately trying to gain visas for Ahmed and his family, Kinley faces long hours of delays and stalls on the phone. He’s eventually told that it would take at least nine months to clear them even though Ahmed and family are under constant threat and barely surviving day by day.
War is serious stuff. And while some directors make their movie wars flashy and bombastic, Guy Ritchie keeps his as serious as a heart attack.
And that’s exactly what makes Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant work.
This pic avoids any political elbows or commentary about the execution of the war in Afghanistan, though much could have been said. There are no Rambo-like histrionics. No flag-waving crescendos. Instead, the film simply sticks to an emotional story of two men who put everything on the line to save each other’s lives.
It’s a tale of personal sacrifice and fighting valiantly: paying debts, righting wrongs, enduring the pain. This is the kind of brotherhood-focused war story that people from nearly every walk and persuasion can appreciate, one that’s delivered with stirring depictions by actors Jake Gyllenhaal and Dar Salim.
Of course, part of the seriousness of war is its brutal ugliness. And The Covenant does not skimp in those regards. The action is intense and bloody, the language foul. For many, that will make this a battlefield story best left unseen.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.