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'Guy Ritchie's The Covenant' marks a change of tone, but not pace for Ritchie


Filmmaker Guy Ritchie is chiefly known for light entertainments from trickily edited "Sherlock Holmes" movies to live-action remakes of Disney's "Aladdin" to fast-paced crime movies like "Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels." Critic Bob Mondello says Ritchie's new film, titled "Guy Ritchie's The Covenant," marks a change of tone and subject matter but not a change of pace.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: A checkpoint in Afghanistan.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) John, we have Talis approaching.

MONDELLO: A driver ordered out of his truck and slowly backing away.


MONDELLO: An explosion, taking the life of an American soldier and his interpreter. Five minutes into the movie, and a war that's been grinding for 17 years has taken two more lives. Sergeant John Kinley, played by a watchful Jake Gyllenhaal, needs a new interpreter. He gravitates to a former Afghan mechanic with a rep for being headstrong...


JAKE GYLLENHAAL: (As John Kinley) You patronizing me, Akhmed?

DAR SALIM: (As Ahmed) No. No.

GYLLENHAAL: ...Played by Dar Salim.


SALIM: (As Ahmed) I would never patronize an officer, sir.

GYLLENHAAL: (As John Kinley) Well, Akhmed, this unit specializes in finding Taliban munitions and explosive sites. Sadly, we lost our last interpreter.

SALIM: (As Ahmed) Understood. And it's Ahmed, sir.

GYLLENHAAL: (As John Kinley) Well, it's sergeant, not sir.

MONDELLO: Kindred spirits. Ahmed joined up because the Americans promised that Afghan interpreters, in return for loyal service, would get U.S. visas for themselves and their families. He has a pregnant wife, a rationale for surviving and, as Kinley will discover, a sixth sense when it comes to danger.


SALIM: (As Ahmed) Stop the vehicle, sergeant. We don't want to go down this road.

GYLLENHAAL: (As John Kinley) You're out of your bounds, Ahmed. You're here to translate.

SALIM: (As Ahmed) Actually, I'm here to interpret.

MONDELLO: Ahmed interprets them through crisis after crisis until one day, many miles from base, they're overrun, and Kinley gets grievously wounded.


MONDELLO: And what's been a straight-up action film becomes a desperate odyssey, Ahmed dodging half the Taliban as he drags Kinley on a makeshift stretcher across a mountain range to the American base. And for what? Kinley's sent home to his wife and kids. Ahmed discovers that the promise, the contract, the covenant regarding U.S. visas for his family is less than ironclad, as Kinley puts it to anyone who will listen back home.


GYLLENHAAL: (As John Kinley) He's hiding in a hole somewhere. I should be in that hole.

MONDELLO: But nobody's listening. So far, so Guy Richie - action, gritty and explosive dialogue as muscular as it is sparse. This writer-director has a macho, gung-ho thing he's known for, and he's still doing it, admittedly with fewer quips than usual. The substance of "The Covenant," though, is, unlike most of Ritchie's work, an earnest look at responsibility, responsibility personal and national, a man determined to repay a debt on which his country is reneging. Kinley goes on a tear to get Ahmed what he was promised, begging then threatening to the point that he's called on the carpet by his superiors.


GYLLENHAAL: (As John Kinley) Do you think if I could be shot of this debt, I wouldn't be? Do you think if I could just go through the usual channels, I wouldn't? That is not how this debt works. It demands a result, not an appeasement. There is a hook in me.

MONDELLO: Will that hook drag him back to Afghanistan to pay the debt? Well, it's "Guy Ritchie's The Covenant," so yes. In the movies, one righteous warrior can right the wrongs of a nation. Would that that were possible in real life. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.
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