Reviewed by Roger Marheine

May 27, 2023


Film Review:  Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant. (MGM/STX, 2023)

Highly successful British director Guy Ritchie became famous with films that oozed with toxic masculinity, (Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch). He evolved to utilize a more subtle irony (the Sherlock Holmes series and The Gentlemen).  His latest film, Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant, with its awkward title, pivots to Afghanistan and features a strong cast but a disturbing message.

Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant is a propaganda film, championing the valor of the U.S.’ can-do soldiers of empire, who commit to good deeds even if in a genocidal war. It is also a buddy film, based on war time loyalty, in which the good white man, pays his debt, his “covenant,” to the worthy dark-skinned “native” of the invaded Afghanistan.  Ritchie’s is an unabashed cliché, an American military rescue film, and personification of the imperialist ideology–“humanitarian intervention.”  The film functions as a salve placed over the gaping wound that is Afghanistan, a country that has been battered by U.S. imperialism. [1]

Why the clumsy and confusing title?

Notably the original title was The Interpreter which would have placed the Afghan character, Ahmed Abdullah (Dar Salim), front and center.  Ritchie changed it to Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant, apparently to avoid confusion with a 2006 horror film, entitled The Covenant.  The film’s credits state that “covenant” can mean pledge, debt, or contract. Is Ritchie tone deaf as the quasi-religious term, “covenant” connotes the bond between God and the Israelites? Is the title perhaps an unintended (ironic?) insult to the Afghan Muslims and the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban?

Ritchie Ignores Fundamental Imperialist Truths

Set in Afghanistan, 2018, a full seventeen years after the U.S. invasion (October 2001), the film pays no attention to the imperialist futility which became the U.S.’ longest war, the havoc wreaked upon the country, the slaughter of thousands of Afghan civilians, or the growth of opium production (though at one point, the hero is given opium to ease his pain!).

Keep in mind, the original stated reason for the U.S.’s Afghan invasion was to capture Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the 911 terrorist attacks.  That mission was accomplished during the Obama regime, in 2011.  A full seven years later, Ritchie’s hero, Sgt. John Kinley (Jake Gyllenhaal) suffers no qualms about his duties, and enthusiastically carries out search and destroy operations to eradicate Taliban strongholds.

Errors and Distortions

Early in the film, Sgt. Kinley and his squad are ordered to seek and destroy production sites of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) that are 70 kilometers away.  The plot line is deceptive on two counts.

First, IEDs are small weapons, tactically utilized by the Taliban’s guerrilla fighters, and their production would be ubiquitous—a 70-kilometer search mission would be absurd.   Second, naïve American audiences are invited to conflate the Taliban’s IEDs with the Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) supposedly possessed by Saddam Hussein in Iraq. WMDs contain enormous destructive potential entailing chemical, biological or even nuclear payloads, but were never found in Iraq. [2]  In sharp contrast,  IEDs have very limited destructive value and are primarily anti-personnel weapons. Kinley’s military mission is not merely Ritchie’s taking poetic license—it is a fundamentally deceptive plot narrative.

The Imperialist Warrior and the Interpreter

Ritchie does address a genuine issue. The film draws attention to the plight of 50,000 Afghan interpreters who worked as contractors for the U.S. military, and were promised VISAs to America, only to have those promises broken.  A familiar imperialist story of abandonment.

The film’s core depicts a moving camaraderie between Sgt. Kinley and the Afghan interpreter, Ahmed; it is a genuine kinship that is a credit to both actors, Salim and Gyllenhaal. Ahmed is totally humanized, given subtle dialogue and intelligent commentary in the early sequences.  He clarifies he is not merely a “translator,” but an “interpreter” who assesses whole situations and possesses a critical ear when he believes an interrogated Afghan is lying or covering up.  While he is committed to the U.S. military mission, Ahmed is subordinate to Kinley’s status as imperialist soldier.  [3]

Kinley is subsequently injured in a gun battle with the Taliban, but is saved by Ahmed. Staged as an epic journey of extraordinary determination, the dutiful servant transports his boss, enduring a 70-kilometer journey through the mountainous Afghan terrain.  We see Ahmed pulling the injured American on a wheel less stretcher and ultimately pushing a two-wheeled cart up mountains over several days.  The sequence is so over done as to be comic, but unintentionally so.  It is meant to establish Ahmed’s mythic status, as the worthy Afghan sidekick, and thus validate the enormous covenant (debt) the American now owes his interpreter.

Here, Ritchie might have utilized the sequence as a metaphor for providing reparations for the Afghan people, but his scene reduces the war to singular individual morality. Upon his safe return home, Kinley confronts the U.S. government’s intransigence to repatriating Ahmed and his family, but no avail.

In a plot twist that strains the boundaries of belief, Kinley ultimately resorts to desperate measures by personally offering $150,000 to a Black Water type mercenary group to locate and save Ahmed and his family.  Kinley (unlike America) will be paying his debts, you see.

Now where is Kinley to obtain $150,000? In a cringe-worthy scene, Kinley discusses his plan with his wife, Caroline (Emily Beecham).  While her soldier husband has been off to war, she has been running his auto shop business expertly and raising their two small children alone. Her speech to him begins quite movingly with a review of his 12-year enlistment, a reminder of her undying support all those years, and a statement revealing her poignant sense of the stress upon their marriage. The viewer senses she will refuse, saying enough is enough, think of your family etc. Incredibly, she agrees to his scheme and tells him to mortgage the house for the $150,000, so Kinley can pay the private contractors. The insultingly sexist personification of the imperialist soldier’s dutiful wife is merely a device for Ritchie to move the absurd plot along.


The final mercenary rescue sequence is a racist set piece. Heavily armed, the mercenaries come riding in to save the day like the cavalry in old western movies fighting Native Americans. The sequence is an advertisement for contract killers; mercenary militias are the necessary alternative when official channels have been exhausted.

Overall, the Afghan people are props in Ritchie’s film.  Only Ahmed’s character is three-dimensional, but his is humanized because he supports the imperialist cause.  Ritchie’s portrayal of the Taliban, as the inscrutable “other,” adheres to standard racial stereotyping, and lacks all historical nuance. They are simply the inexplicably evil doers, who obstruct the humanitarian mission.


Narrative movies, in particular, rely heavily on the “suspension of disbelief,” as viewers pretend the film is “real” and “true.”  Without the suspension of disbelief, a film loses its power to influence, yet that influence can be dangerous.  According to Rotten Tomatoes, Ritchie’s film received a whopping 98% audience score.  I saw the film in suburban Los Angeles—that audience cheered and clapped at the end. The film “worked” upon this audience who was apparently not bothered by the racism and hardly cared about the preposterous plot with ridiculous sentimentality for the U.S. Military.  These viewers were seduced by the notion that saving the interpreter was an act of altruism, a humanitarian intervention by a valiant military hero. Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant functions as a salve to cover the gaping wound that is Afghanistan.



1. See Sonali Kohatkar and James Ingalls. Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of  Silence     (Seven Stories Pr. 2006. 336Pp.)

2. Note the excellent film, Green Zone. (Dir. Paul Greengrass, 2010). Based on the non-fiction text, Imperial Life in the Emerald City (2007) by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Green Zone, stars a naïve American officer (Matt Damon) who seeks but never finds WMDs. It’s a much more honest film than Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant.

3. Ritchie taps into the British imperialist literary tradition of the worthy dark-skinned subordinate, made famous in Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Gunga Din.” The water carrier, Gunga Din succumbs to beatings by British soldiers, only to prove his worth by dying in battle. The American version of the white man allying with the dark man goes back at least to James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales in which the white man, Natty Bumppo teams with Chingachgook, “The Last of the Mohicans.” Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn teamed with the escaped slave Jim. In television depictions of the American west, the Lone Ranger teams with Tonto. Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel  (Dalkey Archive Pr., 1966) argued that major American male novelists tended to depict male characters in trying (heroic) situations in which male bonding prevailed.  Significantly, female characters were reduced to insignificance, either as hostile to men or as virtuous subordinates.  Kinley’s wife is the latter.


-Roger Marheine taught English at Pasadena City College and is now retired. His interests include war culture and resistance literature.