If “The Covenant” were only an interrogation of the hollowness of American exceptionalism, as its first hour suggests, it’d be among the most honest portrayals of the country’s role in the region. But Ritchie eventually awakens from his stupor, pushing this combat-action flick to gonzo territory.
In “The Covenant,” we’re immediately given an immersive view of the dangers hanging over all involved. For instance, during the opening scene Kinley and his men—a team specializing in the recovery of explosives or weapons of mass destruction—are conducting roadside checks. Their translator attempts to get an Afghan truck driver to open his payload, only for a bomb to be detonated, murdering the translator and two other soldiers. When Ahmed arrives to fill the vacant position, it might surprise the viewer to hear his abruptness; the job is merely a paycheck to him. We discover later that Ahmed is more attached to bringing down the Taliban than he lets on.
That stoicism gives the script by Ritchie, Ivan Atkinson, and Marn Davies so much intrigue. Because though the gaze of cinematographer Ed Wild’s camera appears attached to Kinley, it’s actually enraptured by Ahmed. From knowing the local drug trade to being able to tell when someone is lying instantly, Ahmed demonstrates that he is an intelligent man intimately aware of the happenings around him. He is unafraid to speak up or to go off script, such as negotiating with an informant or correcting the unamused Kinley of his errors. Sadim is totally connected with how his broad frame plays to the camera; how these soldiers see him as a threat, often not even acknowledging his presence, even though he is there to help them. Sadim also displays an intelligence that runs counter to the brawny, gut-check soldier seen in other war films.
However, fissures break open when Ritchie turns his visual interests away from Sadim to Gyllenhaal. When an attack leaves Ahmed and Kinley fighting through the Afghan wilderness back to base, the specter of the unequal relationship Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis shared in “The Defiant Ones” rears its ugly head: Will this partnership cause Kinley to finally see the inherent humanity of Ahmed? Admittedly, Kinley doesn’t entirely disregard Ahmed’s presence like Curtis does to Poitier. It’s suggested through Gyllenhaal’s psychologically firm performance that he trusts and even somewhat admires Ahmed. And yet, the personal distance outside the workplace setting of war is apparent. As opposed to the other soldiers under his care, Kinley would rather not know anything about Ahmed, making their flight toward freedom through the wilderness an uneven arrangement whereby Ahmed is tethered to Kinsely not solely through loyalty (and really, not even out of friendship) , but an unearned honoring of the camaraderie shared by soldiers in combat.