If you know about Guy Ritchie’s work, you will know that his trademark visual is ‘Men with Guns.’ He is one filmmaker who has now become a genre in himself, but in his new film, he has certainly put a twist on his own genre. The Covenant, Guy Ritchie’s latest directorial venture, surely contains men, guns, and men with guns, yet it’s the most unique Ritchie film ever. Written by Ritchie himself, alongside Ivan Atkinson and Marn Davies, the film chronicles a peculiar and selfless bond between two very different individuals under lethal conditions.
Set in Afghanistan during the last years of American military presence in the terrain, the film begins with Master Sergeant John Kinley (Jake Gyllenhaal) losing his interpreter in a bomb blast and getting joined by an Afghani local named Ahmed (Dar Salim) as a replacement. The story takes a tragic turn when one of John’s missions fails, and his men are killed in action while he and Ahmed are left to fend off the merciless Taliban.
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The movie begins with the title card reading the number of US troops deployed in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks and its monumental increase up until 2011. About fifty thousand Afghani locals were hired by the American military as interpreters in exchange for the promise of an American visa and their chance of relocation to the “Land of Opportunity”.
Master Sergeant John Kinley is introduced to us, leading his team diligently to search the incoming vehicles for contraband. Staff Sergeant Jack “Jack Jack” Jackson goes up to a vehicle with the Afghan interpreter. The truck driver curses the interpreter for helping the infidels. He gets off the truck and begins to retrace his steps away from the vehicle, which catches Kinley’s eyes. He begins to check in on the truck, but before anybody can move any further, the truck, which contains an IED (Improvised Explosive Device), explodes, killing Jack Jack and the interpreter on the spot.
A spot opens up in Kinley’s unit to fill the role of interpreter. A bald and sturdy Afghani man named Ahmed seems like a robust replacement, and although he gives the vibe of a blowhard at first, Kinley takes a liking to him. One of Kinley’s major tasks was to locate IED manufacturing sectors, and he began by searching a nearby warehouse suspected of terrorist activities. Ahmed accompanies the unit, and immediately the two are in for a bit of an ego clash when Ahmed gives his unsolicited advice to Kinley not to waste time on searching that particular warehouse as he is unlikely to find anything in there. Kinley doesn’t like Ahmed’s antics, but ultimately he is proven right as they don’t find a clue about the IEDs. If John was to find the correct location, he would have to change his tactics.
This chain of command is seriously challenged later when Ahmed pays a lead to tell them about the Taliban’s location, overriding Kinley’s orders. He is deeply affronted by Ahmed’s audacity to go against his wishes. He also learns a disturbing fact that could potentially have a negative impact on Ahmed’s behavior: his son was killed by the Taliban. Ahmed did not remain a neutral player for Kinley anymore. Was this story a bluff by the Taliban? An attempt to infiltrate the American military? A Trojan Horse of sorts? On the other hand, the story could be true, but then his passion for revenge may be driving him to find the Taliban’s sector much more than the Americans, which could lead to irrational decisions. Worried by this, Kinley stays wary of Ahmed’s moves. He confronts Ahmed, and both men see eye to eye while having this essential conversation about never overriding Kinley’s authority. Ahmed apologizes for his hasty approach, burying the hatchet.
A new day arrives. The map is laid out, but vetted local Afghani recruit Haadee suggests Kinley take a new route as the previous road would have been washed away by the rains. The cohort departs, and right in the middle of their outing, Ahmed raises his concern about this new route. Kinley is not too pleased with Ahmed. He has no time for any of his shticks, but when Ahmed persists with his perturbations, Kinley is forced to command the vehicle’s halt. He orders the other sergeants to go have a look for incoming threats and quell Ahmed’s suspicions as well as his own. At first, no disturbance is perceived, but Ahmed starts beating Haadee for driving them into an ambush. Kinley, about to shoot Ahmed for this insubordination, suddenly receives the news that the new route was indeed set up for an ambush. It turns out that Haadee had his family kidnapped by the Taliban, which is why he tried to deceive Kinley under the Taliban’s orders.
Kinley is convinced of Ahmed’s motives. The Taliban’s enemy was his friend, and Ahmed wasn’t stupid enough to get the Americans into trouble. He was loyal—not to the American military but to his own mission. After getting saved from walking into the ambush, Kinley finally manages to locate one of the Taliban’s bases of operations. He, however, did not know that it was one when he arrived there. Ahmed suspects something is wrong, and before they know it, armed men with cars and bazookas hone in on Kinley’s unit. The Taliban overpower the American unit, killing all of Kinley’s men, but he escapes with Ahmed. They try hard but do not manage to get the Taliban to lose their tail.
In the hilly region, Kinley and Ahmed run away to save their lives. Kinley even manages to kill a few Taliban men with Ahmed’s assistance, but ultimately he gets shot trying to get away. Kinley feels his life is ending, and he would have surely been taken away by the Taliban had it not been for Ahmed’s heroics. Ahmed kills the attackers, puts Kinley on a stretcher, and begins dragging it across the grueling terrain of Afghanistan.
The danger was not yet over. Ahmed had killed the Taliban’s men. They wouldn’t sit still allowing him to get away with the infidel Kinley. Ahmed knows this and thus has no luxury to stop and rest. Through scorching days and chilly nights, Ahmed drags Kinley toward the nearest American military base, feeding him whatever little food, water, and medicine he can procure along the way.
The Taliban puts a price on their heads, and whoever is found to help them is killed along with their entire family. Even under such intense conditions, Ahmed carries Kinley as if he were his blood brother and with such perseverance that he wouldn’t be able to live with himself if he were to leave him for the Taliban. He reaches a village where, after an altercation with the Taliban, an American unit finally arrives near Ahmed and finds Kinley alive. In almost a trance, Kinley sees his own army men arresting Ahmed, unaware that he is the reason why he has even made it this far.
The chapter on finding IED hotspots in Afghanistan is technically over for Kinley. He survives and is sent back to America, where he is looked after by his wife and two young children. But something’s not quite right. Anger and an unfulfilled promise start to eat away at his core. He sits here comfortably in his home in America while the man who saved him, because of whom he is now enjoying these luxuries, was probably suffering with his family back in Afghanistan. Ahmed had not just saved Kinley; he had penetrated the deepest levels of Kinley’s psyche. Chilling flashes of Ahmed crossing peaks and valleys, rivers and deserts, helping Kinley survive excruciating days and nights, don’t leave his mind. This selfless gesture couldn’t go unrecognized.
Kinley begins to honor Ahmed’s compassion by starting an inquiry to get Ahmed an immediate immigration visa. As Ahmed was part of the American military’s operations, he was eligible to be relocated to America. Each day is crucial; Kinley’s patience starts running out as the bureaucratic delays keep getting longer and longer. After a month or so of trying diligently, Kinley begins to lose control and starts going into a frenzy over not being able to help Ahmed.
A friend of Kinley’s offers his help when Kinley resolves to get Ahmed out of Afghanistan himself. He plans to give him a new identity and get him in touch with a private security contractor by the name of Parker. We get a sense that time is running out for Ahmed when we see him and his family escaping from one location to another, barely getting away from the bloodthirsty Taliban.
Before leaving for Afghanistan, Kinley is called in by his superior, Vokes, to call him out about his shenanigans with the immigration office. A steely Kinley asks him to help him honor a debt to Ahmed by getting him a visa before he ends up dead. With such an ultimatum, he leaves for Afghanistan, bidding his wife and kids goodbye, which could very well turn out to be a final one.
Kinley arrives at Parker’s base but receives bad news. Parker, who was supposed to locate Ahmed and get him out safely with his family, had deployed his men to another mission, and Kinley would have to wait three more days for the search mission. An alternative would be that he could go on this search mission alone right away, and Parker would come and rescue him if and when he ended up locating Ahmed. Kinley doesn’t have the patience or the intention to wait that long, so he decides to go alone.
Along with the intel received from Ahmed’s drug-dealing brother and his transporter, Pooya, Kinley goes on the journey to locate Ahmed. Things get a little botched up when Kinley shoots a Taliban official, and the news gets spread like wildfire that Kinley, who had escaped his death, has returned again and is now trying to get the traitor Ahmed out of the country. Vokes calls Kinley to tell him about the special visas for Ahmed that had been sent to Parker. For Kinley, it was now only a matter of getting to the location where Parker’s guys could safely get them out.
Kinley makes contact with Ahmed and tries to get him and his family out safely. The Taliban also catch up to them, and the chase begins. Loaded with Parker’s weaponry, Kinley manages to fend off the danger for a while, but the Taliban can’t let them get away so easily. They deploy all their strength to nab them. Trucks full of armed men come swarming in just to catch Kinley and Ahmed. Kinley’s bullets prove to be too small in number against the enemy’s mega-weaponry. His resolve to honor his debt to Ahmed begins to seem like a far-fetched mission that he isn’t going to be able to fulfill after all. Ahmed fights alongside Kinley, trying to keep his newborn and his wife safe at the same time, but it all seems to come to a tragic end until suddenly, a fighter plane fires air missiles, killing the mercenaries on the spot and saving Kinley, Ahmed, and his family.
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Kinley had changed his identity so as not to endanger Ahmed. If the Taliban had become aware of his presence in Afghanistan, they would have known the reason behind his arrival and that would have had lethal consequences for Ahmed. Parker did not recognize that the man who sat in front of him was the famous war hero, Master Sergeant John Kinley. He realized this almost too late when Kinley was struggling to survive the flying bullets. When he did finally recognize him, however, he sent the fighter plane to Darunta Dam, which was the extraction point, and even though Kinley had failed to contact Parker amidst the gun warfare against the mercenaries, the plane arrived just in the nick of time, as if luck itself was on Kinley’s side, who simply wanted to honor his debt to Ahmed. Kinley put his life on the line and got Ahmed out of trouble, thus upholding the brotherly covenant.