With any agreement or promise, there has to be a follow-through, and sometimes it works out…sometimes it doesn’t. In Guy Ritchie’s latest feature ‘The Covenant,’ however the stakes to uphold the bond and pledge made by two men isn’t just the vehicle for an incredible story of brotherhood, it’s also a peek into what drives someone into showing bravery and mortality even when the stakes are high.
The film, which takes place in March of 2018 in Taliban-occupied Afghanistan, follows US Army Sergeant John Kinley (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his Afghan interpreter Ahmed (Dar Salim). At the beginning of the feature, we see Kinley leading up a specialist unit tasked with finding Taliban munitions and explosive storage sites, and through different circumstances, Kinley has to find a new interpreter and that’s what ultimately leads him to Ahmed.
At that time, US troops promised money and safe passage to America if the interpreters helped them. When Kinley is advised to select Ahmed who speaks “four languages worth speaking”, the Army Sergeant asks Ahmed why he wants this job: He replies back about the monetary value, but we find out later on, there’s a bit more personal ammunition to this decision. In fact, there is a lot to unpack when it comes to the characters in this film.
“It’s, on paper, a simple story between two men. But at the same time, it’s very special because the fact that they’re from different cultures and stuck in the same situation where life is at stake…it’s not a natural story of two American soldiers or two Afghans,” explains Salim. “It’s actually two guys who don’t necessarily trust each other, but they have to. It’s about making the right choice, even though the right choice is very, very difficult.”
Gyllenhaal had a similar experience when reading the script, or more so, the first 50 pages that director Guy Ritchie sent over to him. The actor knew it was going to be an action film, and one that was wildly entertaining as are most of Ritchie’s films. But the excitement for this role came more so from what lies beneath the combat and the explosives.
“It kind of reminded me what it is to be an American and our obligations to other humans, you know?” Gyllenhaal explains. “I think the idea of heroism has been perpetuated as something that doesn’t come with a deep reluctance sometimes and that isn’t sentimental.”
He continued: “Sometimes doing good is just going against even an instinct you may think you have. And it’s a simple action. And that’s what this movie is… It’s a movie about a pretty simple action done by two people who don’t even really like each other that much to begin with— and may that be a lesson to us all. And that’s why I was moved by it, and that’s why I wanted to be a part of it.”
Kinley and Ahmed start the story off by not knowing each other’s motivations, and they don’t exactly get along. It’s through actions and through intentions that their trust and bond is built, and a lot of times it happens nonverbally.
“That’s the irony, right? There’s a line that Dar’s character says to my character after I say, “You’re here to translate.” He says, “No, actually, I’m here to interpret,” says Gyllenhaal. “A lot of that [understanding they build] has to be done not through spoken language, but done through action. Yes, it’s an action movie, but it’s an action movie in a different form, in that it’s literally about just an act—one act one way and the same act the other way.”
The bond built between the actors also came through in Ritchie’s directing style which is very… organic. There would be days where the script acted more so as a guideline, and the dialogue had to come naturally to what felt right in the moment. Kind of like how Kinley and Ahmed would talk if the cameras weren’t there, but they were in those same situations.
“Guy, I think is so brilliant. He puts it all together and starts to see what it is, and he listens to it. It shouldn’t be your first time on the dance floor working with Guy, you have to be confident enough to trust what you bring,” explains Salim. “If you’re there, you are bringing your whole life with you, your experience besides acting and all your acting tools with you. And you have to trust the process and just go back to basics and be present and move with the flow.”
Ultimately, ‘The Covenant’ follows the actions and reactions of the two men at the center of the story. Ahmed saves Kinley’s life after an attack from the Taliban, and he travels for miles to bring him back to safety. When Kinley wakes up at home and starts to piece together what happened, he doesn’t feel like he wants to help Ahmed and his family who were forced underground after that heroic act—rather, he feels like he has to. Even though that means going to a land where he’s still wanted and leaving his family behind.
The film also put accuracy front and center when it came to showcasing the military, and ‘The Covenant’ had advisors on set to make sure of that.
“That’s absolutely of utmost importance to me,” says Gyllenhaal. “The best part of our job is that we get to learn from the people who actually do the real job, and the best part of being in the movie business in particular is that sometimes you get the best of the best who want to come in and show you. [We want to do it right] in everything down to our uniforms, how they were worn, how we held ourselves in them and what we did in them. It’s very important to me that we represent the military with respect and humbleness.”
‘The Covenant’ is full of heart, and more so, how that translates over in simpler terms. With two characters who start out working together out of necessity, they peel back the layers of what it means to be soldiers, to be friends, and more so, to be human.
“We don’t say as much in real life as we do in scripts. Normally, we kind of show it when you meet another human being. It’s all about everything other than the words,” finishes Salim. “I think that’s what this movie found in itself, an homage to an old way of thinking in a certain way. It’s about doing good and making the right choices, and not necessarily talking about it or posting it…but just doing it.”
Guy Ritchie’s ‘The Covenant’ drops in theaters April 21.