Interpreting the horrors of war after making a string of films with Hugh Grant must be a unique form of whiplash. Guy Ritchie must carry this burden. He trades in the articulate and consistent joy of an in-form Grant for a post-Spider-Man Jake Gyllenhaal, who desperately clamours for project after project, looking to relight the fire. Still, with a little help from his friends, Antony Starr and Jonny Lee Miller, the potential for a revival is certainly there. The Covenant may make for dull military propaganda, but this sweeping criticism can be levelled at any perspective of war adapted to the big screen. Where is the neutral line drawn? Can it even happen now everyone is connected and at least knowledgeable about what goes on? Centuries on from Waterloo and other historic pieces, it may be an opinion which holds people back from engaging in wartime horrors.
Unwrap this propaganda sheen and within is a decent enough experience, not one which can suspend the obvious but how else are stories of heroism to be told if audiences cannot see Gyllenhaal as the unbridled hero? Good and bad are as complex as it gets now and although The Covenant attempts to interpret the neutral ground, it does not find itself standing on it. Still, like The Hurt Locker, there is a humanity to The Covenant which comes not in the form of experience but in dialogue, not the convincing turns Ritchie is perhaps expecting but in the understanding of personality above duty. The Last Detail featured this well and while The Covenant does not quite get to grips with that, it does feature some interesting camera work from Ritchie.
Strange it may be to see him stripped down to the camouflage gear and the matching dull skies, smart little tricks are put into play to ease viewers into an experience that utilises the reaction as well as the action of Gyllenhaal’s Sgt. John Kinley. At least the story is interesting, the well-paced momentum of an interpreter and a soldier coming together to see if they can make it out of whatever slate of predicaments they find themselves in alive. But the issues arise when Gyllenhaal and Dar Salim are pushed further and further, the wedge driven between intention and expectation. It is hard to take the moral high ground when the old and hardened expectations of a heroic soldier pour through, woe is me language from Gyllenhaal is at least displayed well and affectionately.
Ritchie flutters through some love for mirrors, car wing mirrors to be specific. He uses it to frame a jilted and unnerved Gyllenhaal, the soldier unable to keep his cool where it matters most. The Covenant may find itself in places of solitude but the onslaught of horde-like monsters is an uncomfortable display and fails to articulate the humanity it aims for as the pipe-smoking soldier who went back to help is celebrated more for his turn of morals than he is for his initial opposition. We all learn somehow and although The Covenant teaches little, it does get a little artsy with what could have been a bone-dry war exploitation. Sometimes the fallout of personal torture in the face of survival is more important than the message at the end. Stalemate war is a sickening construction, the silence which precedes and follows an AC-130 blast is a startling reminder of that.