Review: ‘Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant,’ starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Dar Salim

April 22, 2023

by Carla Hay

Dar Salim and Jake Gyllenhaal in “Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant” (Photo by Christopher Raphael/Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures)

“Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant”

Directed by Guy Ritchie

Culture Representation: Taking place in 2018, in Afghanistan and in the United States, the action film “Guy Ritche’s The Covenant” features a cast of white and Middle Eastern characters (with a few African American, Latinos and East Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class and who are connected in some way to the U.S. war in Afghanistan.

Culture Clash: U.S. Army master sergeant John Kinley, who has his life saved by an Afghan interpreter, goes on a mission to rescue the interpreter and the interpreter’s family from war-torn Afghanistan and to keep the U.S. government’s promise to give U.S. visas to the family. 

Culture Audience: “Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of filmmaker Guy Ritchie, the movie’s headliners, and stories about noble rescue missions during a war.

Jake Gyllenhaal and Antony Starr in “Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant” (Photo by Christopher Raphael/Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures)

“Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant” offers an overly simplistic portrayal of an American rescue mission in Afghanistan. However, this action flick has solid performances and capably shows the importance of interpreters during war. The movie is a mixed bag of questionable scenarios that look very fabricated for a movie and realistic depictions of the emotions and motivations for these actions.

Guy Ritchie tends to write and direct action movies that have a lot of wisecracking banter among the characters. Compared to those other films, “Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant” is a departure for him, since it’s a deadly serious film that is inspired by harrowing situations from the 2001 to 2021 war that the U.S. waged in Afghanistan. (The movie, which takes place in 2018, was actually filmed in Spain.) In addition to directing “Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant” and being one of the movie’s producers, Ritchie co-wrote the screenplay with Ivan Atkinson and Marn Davies.

The rescue mission part of the story doesn’t happen until the last third of the movie. Until then, viewers get to know the two central characters when the movie shows how these two men bonded during the horrors of war. John Kinley (played by Jake Gyllenhaal), who is American, is a master sergeant for the U.S. Army. Ahmed Abdullah (played by Dar Salim), who is Afghan, currently works as an interpreter for the U.S. military. Other things about Ahmed’s background are eventually revealed and cause people to trust or mistrust Ahmed. John and Ahmed are both in their 40s and happily married to loyal wives.

The beginning of “Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant” takes place in Afghanistan, where John is leading a squad of staff sergeants who are tasked with finding explosives from the Taliban. It’s a tight-knit unit that has overall good camaraderie. The members of this specialist unit under John’s leadership are Joshua “JJ” Jung (played by Jason Wong); Tom “Tom Cat” Hancock (played by Rhys Yates); Eduardo “Chow Chow” Lopez (played by Christian Ochoa); Charlie “Jizzy” Crow (played by Sean Sagar); and Jack “Jack Jack” Jackson (played by James Nelson Joyce); and Steve Kersher (played by Bobby Schofield), the youngest sergeant in the group.

Because this is a brutal war, not everyone will make it out alive. The unit has an interpreter named Kalan (played by Walid Shahalami), who is killed by a hidden bomb. John chooses Ahmed from a group of local interpreters to replace Kalan. John hired Ahmed without knowing much about him, except that Ahmed can speak four langauges, and Ahmed needs the money for this interpreter job. Ahmed also has a brother named Ali (played by Damon Zolfaghari), who has a pivotal role in the story.

There are the predictable clashes between Ahmed (who has a tendency to defy John’s orders) and John (who has a tendency to not trust Ahmed’s information over the U.S. military’s intel), but Ahmed and John eventually learn to trust each other. Later, it’s revealed that Ahmed decided to help the U.S. government out of revenge for the Taliban killing his son years earlier, and because the interpreter job comes with the promise that Ahmed and his wife Basira (played by Fariba Sheikhan) can get U.S. visa for themselves and their unborn child. Basira is pregnant at the beginning of the story. The Taliban considers Ahmed to be a traitor, so he’s also a target for murder by the Taliban.

Through a series of events, John and Ahmed are separated from the rest of the unit. Ahmed saves John’s life on multiple occasions. After John gets serious injuries, Ahmed carries a barely conscious John in a cart on a dangerous trek through the mountains. This trip results in John being rescued and sent back to the U.S., but Ahmed is left behind in Afghanistan. Ahmed gets put on the Taliban’s “most wanted” list, so he and his family go into hiding. John is also put on the Taliban’s “most wanted” list.

The fact that John makes it home alive because of Ahmed’s help is not spoiler information, because these details are already revealed in the trailer for “Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant.” The middle of the movie is about John recovering at his home in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he lives with his wife Caroline (played by Emily Beecham) and their two underage children: son Lil Chris (played by Kieran Fort) and daughter Jess (played Savannah Fort). It’s mentioned at one point in the story that Caroline (who does administrative work for the U.S military) and John have been together for 12 years.

John is overwhelmed by guilt, post-traumatic stress disorder, and a driving motivation to make good on the promise that Ahmed and his family will get U.S. visas. Not surprisingly, John gets stymied by a tangled web of bureaucracy in the U.S. government. Expect to see montages where John makes phone calls to uncaring bureaucrats, and he gets increasingly frustrated to the point where he has screaming meltdowns over the phone with people who are of no help.

John’s commanding officer Colonel Vokes (played by Jonny Lee Miller) is empathetic, but he tells John that John has to go through the proper channels to get help for Ahmed. John’s U.S. Army sergeant Declan O’Brady (played by Alexander Ludwig), who served in combat alongside John and has a lot of admiration for John, decides to give more pro-active assistance that can bypass the U.S. government. Declan refers John to military contractor Eddie Parker (played by Antony Starr), who can help John for a hefty price.

“Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant” certainly has a lot of action-packed suspense and American patriotic moments. And it’s admirable that, unlike many other war movies, it does not portray one side as all “good” and the other side as all “evil.” However, “Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant” stumbles with some very corny dialogue that prevents this movie from becoming a classic war film. During one of his angst-filled moments, John says to Caroline after she says she’s grateful that John came home alive: “You think they blessed you. Well, they cursed me. I am a man who gets no rest.”

“Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant” is different in tone from most of Ritche’s other movies, but this very male-dominated film still continues Ritchie’s pattern of having women in his action flicks only as tokens. In the case of “Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant,” Basira and Caroline get very limited screen time and just have roles where they are “the worrried wives at home.” Caroline has one short monologue, where she gives a “stand by your man” pep talk to John before he decides to go back to Afghanistan and rescue Ahmed and Ahmed’s family.

Although it’s a very noble deed for John to go back and rescue Ahmed and Ahmed’s family, the movie makes it unrealistically look like John is some kind of super-soldier. John recovers so quickly from his injuries and is operates on such a high level of extraordinary skills, he can lead a combat mission and be a top-notch international spy (he goes back to Afghanistan under an alias), all without the U.S. government knowing about it. Parker’s team helps, of course, but John uses an alias with Parker too. It’s very hard to believe that a special ops expert like Parker would be this easily fooled.

A movie like “Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant” isn’t too concerned about making everything look accurate and believable. The film’s main purpose is to make viewers root for the “heroes” of the story. In that respect, these flawed heroes are compelling to watch, even if they always act like movie characters. The meaningful friendship that develops between John and Ahmed is the heart of the story, which gives this movie enough life for it to be worth watching.

Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures released “Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant” in U.S. cinemas on April 21, 2023.

Review: ‘Don’t Breathe 2,’ starring Stephen Lang, Brendan Sexton III and Madelyn Grace

August 12, 2021

by Carla Hay

Stephen Lang and Adam Young in “Don’t Breathe 2” (Photo by Sergej Radovic/Screen Gems)

“Don’t Breathe 2”

Directed by Rodo Sayagues

Culture Representation: Taking place in Detroit, the horror flick “Don’t Breathe 2” has a predominantly white cast (with a few Latinos and African Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: In this horror sequel, a blind Gulf War veteran battles against more intruders who invade his home. 

Culture Audience: “Don’t Breathe 2” will appeal primarily to people who like watching mindless, ridiculous and violent horror movies.

Stephen Lang in “Don’t Breathe 2” (Photo by Sergej Radovic/Screen Gems)

At some point, the filmmakers of the “Don’t Breathe” franchise gave up all pretense of making realistic horror and decided to lean into very campy foolishness. In “Don’t Breathe 2” (a follow-up to the 2016 sleeper hit “Don’t Breathe”), the franchise’s elderly blind protagonist fights more like Marvel’s blind superhero Daredevil than a regular human being who is blind. Depending on your tolerance for dumb horror movies, you’ll either be amused and/or bored when watching “Don’t Breathe 2,” but you probably won’t be scared.

“Don’t Breathe 2” was written by Fede Álvarez and Rodo Sayagues, who also wrote “Don’t Breathe.” Álvarez directed “Don’t Breathe,” while Sayagues makes his feature-film directorial debut with “Don’t Breathe 2.” The difference in the quality of films is very noticeable. “Don’t Breathe” is a taut, believable thriller, while “Don’t Breathe 2” is a ludicrous mess. It might be hard for some viewers to believe that both movies were written by the same people.

In terms of characters, the only one from “Don’t Breathe” who’s in “Don’t Breathe 2” is protagonist Norman Nordstrom (played by Stephen Lang), who isn’t a virtuous hero but more like an anti-hero. In “Don’t Breathe 2,” viewers don’t even really find out Norman’s name. In the end credits, he’s only listed as “The Blind Man.”

Both movies take place in Detroit and have a small number of cast members. In “Don’t Breathe,” almost all the violence happened in Norman’s house, while “Don’t Breathe 2” has other locations for fight scenes in addition to Norman’s house. Fair warning to people who get easily squeamish: Compared to the first “Don’t Breathe” movie, “Don’t Breathe 2” has lot more gratutitous violence and is more fixated on showing close-ups of people’s bloody wounds.

People don’t need to see “Don’t Breathe” to understand what’s going in on “Don’t Breathe 2,” which is supposed to take place several years after what happened in “Don’t Breathe.” In “Don’t Breathe,” Norman battled against three young thieves who broke into his home to steal about $300,000 in cash that they knew he kept in the house. In “Don’t Breathe 2,” his home invaders are organ harvesters. Yes, you read that right.

What would organ harvesters want with a senior citizen who’s blind? It’s eventually revealed in the movie, but it has to do with the girl who is living with Norman. Her name is Phoenix (played by Madelyn Grace), and she’s about 12 or 13 years old. An early scene in “Don’t Breathe 2” shows that Norman has been training Phoenix to defend herself. In this idiotic movie, Norman is magically able to run through dense places like a forest or a cluttered hideaway he’s never been to before, without the use of a cane or guide dog. And he never trips or stumbles.

Phoenix is homeschooled, and she has no friends except for a young woman named Hernandez (played by Stephanie Arcila), who drives a van for a company called Lake Park Fern and Plant Sales. Norman is extremely protective of Phoenix, but he trusts Hernandez to take care of Phoenix when Phoenix needs to go somewhere that would require someone to drive her there. Hernandez comments to Norman about his parenting skills to Phoenix, “You know, you either need to loosen up that leash, or she’s going to bite it off.”

How did Phoenix end up living with bachelor Norman, whom she calls “Father”? That answer is also revealed in the movie. But a clue is in the movie’s opening scene, which shows a girl, who’s about 4 or 5 years old, walking from a burning house into the middle of a street and then lying down in the street, as if she’s in shock. The movie then picks up eight years later by showing Phoenix and Norman doing a personal safety test exercise, where he pretends to be a kidnapper who’s after her.

Phoenix fails the test because Norman was able to come up behind her and ambush her. She tells him that she’s sorry she failed the test. Norman says he won’t be able to give Phoenix more freedom until she passes all of her tests.

The movie reveals another clue about Phoenix’s identity when she’s giving Norman a haircut and asks him if the white streak in her hair is because Norman has white hair. Based on his answer, Norman has told Phoenix that she’s his biological daughter. And where is Phoenix’s mother? Norman has told Phoenix that her mother is dead.

And the reason why there are no photos of the mother is because “everything was lost in the fire,” says Norman. It’s implied that Norman told Phoenix that her mother died in this fire. However, there’s a major plot hole later in the movie. In order for this plot hole to be credible, viewers would have to believe that Phoenix has no memories of her childhood before she was 4 or 5 years old.

People who saw “Don’t Breathe” will know about Norman’s backstory that he lost his first daughter in a car accident that was caused by a wealthy woman, who gave him a $300,000 settlement that he kept hidden as cash in his house. And there’s something in that movie that reveals how far Norman was willing to go to have another daughter. In “Don’t Breathe 2,” Norman shows remorse by saying he’s sorry for all the bad things that he did in his past. It’s so people who might not have seen the first “Don’t Breathe” movie will know that Norman is far from being a saintly victim.

Besides Hernandez, Phoenix’s closest companion is the family dog: a Rottweiler named Shadow. Strangely, the movie never really shows Shadow being a guide dog for Norman, who usually moves around like a person who can see. The only indications that he might be blind are in scenes inside the house where he occasionally extends his arms in front of him, or when he’s in attack mode and uses a weapon like a blind person.

But too often, there are scenes where Norman ambushes people with perfect precision, like someone who can see. One example is a laughably unrealistic scene where he attacks an intruder in the house by breaking a window from the outside and putting a chokehold on the intruder who’s near the window. How did he see the intruder through the window if he’s blind? Don’t expect any logic in almost all of this movie’s action scenes.

Norman is a Gulf War veteran, which is why he has combat skills. It still doesn’t explain why blind Norman can fight like a person who can see. He does use a few tactics that help him figure out where his targets are. But for the most part, the movie wants viewers to literally believe that blind luck is why Norman is able to fight like a superhero, even though there are no supernatural elements to the story.

One day, Phoenix and Hernandez are out for a drive together so that Phoenix can be outside for some exercise at a local playground. The playground is near an orphanage called Covenant Shelter. Some of the shelter kids are the playground too. But they ignore Phoenix, who is lonely and fantasizes that the kids have asked her to join them in their social activities.

When Phoenix has to use a public restroom nearby, she has a strange encounter with a sleazy-looking man who is loitering inside the restroom. He introduces himself as Raylan (played by Brendan Sexton III), and he tells Phoenix that she’s pretty. Phoenix, who has her dog Shadow with her, has her guard up and tells this creep to leave her alone, or else her dog will attack him.

Raylan backs off, but not before stroking Phoenix’s hair as she leaves the restroom. As Phoenix and Hernandez drive off in the van, Phoenix tells Hernandez about this uncomfortable encounter and assures her that she’s okay. Hernandez gets a good look at Raylan, who sees her eyeing him suspiciously. Instead of reporting the incident to the police—to at least alert law enforcment that a man is loitering in a public restroom and touched an underage girl there—Hernandez does nothing and takes Phoenix home. Do you think this will be the last time they’ll see Raylan? Of course not.

Meanwhile, a scene in the movie shows a TV news report that a doctor is under suspicion for operating an organ trafficking ring in the Detroit area. It should come as no surprise to viewers that Raylan and some other thugs are part of this gang that harvests and sells organs. And somehow, they end up crossing paths with Norman, Phoenix and Hernandez. And not everyone makes it out alive.

Rayland is the top henchman of this crew. All of the subordinate thugs are very generic with no backstories. They include Duke (played by Rocci Williams), a bearded tough guy; Jim Bob (played by Adam Young), a sadistic scumbag who wears his blonde hair in a mullet; Jim Bob’s younger brother Jared (played by Bobby Schofield), who looks like a broke version of Justin Bieber; and Raul (played by Christian Zagia), a muscular type who shows glimmers of having a moral conscience.

The fight scenes between these criminals and Norman are very predictable, violent and gory. The movie offers some suspense in a sequence where Phoenix has to use her agility and wit to try to hide in the house from the home invaders. But, for the most part, the showdowns are exactly what you would expect them to be, if you expect more ludicrous fight scenes on display. There’s a plot reveal in the last third of the movie that won’t have the intended impact because it’s just so moronic.

None of the “Don’t Breathe 2” actors does anything outstanding because their characters are written in such a two-dimensional way. The filmmakers wasted an opportunity to show more of the father-daughter relationship between Norman and Phoenix, which would have given more emotional resonance to what happens in the latter part of the movie. It seems like the filmmakers spent more time on the fight choreography than on crafting a good story.

“Don’t Breathe 2” is a perfect example of why so many movie sequels are inferior to the original movie. It’s a sloppily made film that took what could have been a solid horror franchise and ruined it with an asinine, boring story that uses formulaic violence and gore as a lazy way to try to scare people. “Don’t Breathe 2” won’t terrify most viewers, but it might give some unintended laughs at the stupidity of it all.

Screen Gems amd Stage 6 Films will release “Don’t Breathe 2” in U.S. cinemas on August 13, 2021.

Review: ‘Anthony,’ starring Toheeb Jimoh, Rakie Ayola, Julia Brown and Bobby Schofield

September 4, 2020

by Carla Hay

Toheeb Jimoh in “Anthony” (Photo by Ben Blackall/LA Productions/Peacock)

“Anthony”

Directed by Terry McDonough

Culture Representation: Taking place in England from 2005 to 2012, the dramatic film “Anthony” has a cast of white and black characters representing the middle-class and the working-class.

Culture Clash: This semi-biographical movie speculates what could have happened if real-life murder victim Anthony Walker, who was killed in a racist hate crime at the age of 18, had lived for the next seven years.

Culture Audience: “Anthony” will appeal primarily to people who can tolerate the concept of this movie, knowing that it was made to get people to feel sad or upset over this tragic murder.

Rakie Ayola in “Anthony” (Photo by Ben Blackall/LA Productions/Peacock)

On July 30, 2005, 18-year-old Anthony Walker was murdered in Huyton, Merseyside, England, by two white men in a racist hate crime that was an unprovoked attack. The two killers targeted Anthony, Anthony’s girlfriend Louise Thompson and Anthony’s cousin Marcus Binns, after seeing them waiting at a bus stop. After yelling racist insults at the trio, the killers chased them down in a car. Anthony had the misfortune of not being able to escape when the killers caught him and viciously murdered him.

These sordid details are necessary to know what’s in store when people watch the emotionally touching dramatic movie “Anthony,” which is a mostly speculative story about what Anthony’s life would have been like if the attack never happened and he had lived for the next seven years. The story is told in reverse chronological order, so that the end of the movie depicts what happened in real life: Anthony’s last year alive and what happened in the days leading up to his murder. 

Directed by Terry McDonough and written by Jimmy McGovern, the “what if” concept of “Anthony” could be considered tacky or offensive if this movie hadn’t been given the approval of Anthony’s mother Gee Walker, who appears briefly as herself at the end of the movie. Gee is convincingly portrayed by Rakie Ayola in the film. The movie’s overall tone is respectful of how it portrays Anthony Walker and his family. And for that reason, “Anthony” might be compelling enough to watch for some people.

The movie begins showing what Anthony could have been like at the age of 25. He’s at a black-tie award ceremony where someone is about to be announced as the winner of the Phoenix Turnaround Award, which is given to someone with a troubled past who turned their life around for the better. (This award is fictional and created for the movie.)

The winner is announced as Mick Whitfield (played by Bobby Schofield), a man in his 20s, who begins stuttering badly when he goes on stage to accept the award. It’s shown later in the movie in the flashback scenes that Mick has struggled with being a stutterer for years. His shame over this condition eventually led him into a life of alcoholism and then  homelessness after his wife Helen (Stephanie Hyam) kicked him out of the house because of his drinking problem.

But as viewers see from this award ceremony, Mick has gotten his life back on track. And while he’s nervously accepting his award on stage, he tells the audience that he wants to give his prize to Anthony Walker, because Anthony “deserves it more than I do.” Anthony (played by Taheeb Jimoh), who has been seated in the audience and cheering Mick on, goes up on stage to hug his friend Mick.

The rest of the movie shows Anthony’s life, year by year, in reverse chronological order, from ages 25 to age 18. At age 25, he is happily married with a baby daughter. The movie’s flashbacks show how Anthony met his wife Katherine (played by Julia Brown), their courtship, his marriage proposal, their wedding and the birth of their daughter. The story also shows how Anthony met Mick and how Mick’s alcoholism affected their up-and-down friendship.

Anthony comes from a working-class family that includes his parents Gee and Steven (played by Leo Wringer), who have a rocky marriage. Steven is frequently absent from the home, and by the time that Anthony has his wedding, Gee and Steven are barely tolerating each other. (During a family photo at the wedding, the photographer asks if someone should get Steven to be in the photo, and Gee says not to bother.)

Even though Gee and Steven have a frequently troubled relationship, their love for their children is indisputable. Anthony has four siblings: sister Steph (played by Dominique Moore), sister Dominque (played by Shaniqua Okwok), sister Angella (played by Ade Ajibade) and brother Daniel (played by Wesley Bozonga), who all look up to Anthony. Because Steven is often not present in the household, Anthony is closer to his mother than his father.

Anthony is a bright student and a caring human being who has goals to become a civil-rights attorney in the United States. As he explains to Katherine when they first begin dating each other, black people in America are in desperate need for social justice when it comes to police brutality: “In England. we’re stopped and searched. In America, we’re shot.” The movie also shows how Anthony spends time volunteering as an assistant coach for a high-school basketball team (it’s how he met Katherine, a coach for the girls’ soccer team at the school) and what happens when he applies for an internship at a law firm.

Jimoh admirably portrays Anthony as someone with a great deal of compassion and patience but also a strong sense of right and wrong, with no tolerance for people who break the law. He remains calm when he experiences blatant racism. And he tells people that the best way to deal with racists who want to pick a fight is to walk away or try to talk them out of it. Unfortunately, Anthony could not escape from the racists who were intent on murdering him.

If Anthony is the soul of the story, then his mother Gee is the heart. The way that Ayola depicts Gee’s beautiful relationship with Anthony is heartwarming. And the way that she expresses Gee’s pain after finding out what happened to Anthony after the attack is heartbreaking.

“Anthony” took some risks in how it created a “what if” movie about Anthony’s life, but it’s not a conventional story about a murder victim. It makes the point of how much of a terrible waste it was for Anthony to die so horribly and the void he has left behind. And although it will never be known what Anthony’s life would have been like if he were still alive, the movie capably shows how much of a positive impact he made in his short life. Just brace yourself for the movie’s inevitable tragic ending.

Peacock premiered “Anthony” on September 4, 2020. BBC One televised the movie in the United Kingdom in July 2020.

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