I saw Guy Ritchie‘s The Covenant last night, and was honestly blown away. As in amazed, startled, taken aback. And at the same time mesmerized and soul-panged. It’s a “do the right thing” rescue film against a ruggedly realistic war setting, and except for the formulaic (if irresistably satisfying) final act, it’s pretty close to perfect. Really.

Is it the best Middle Eastern war film since The Hurt Locker? Yeah, I think so. I liked it better that Lone Survivor.

Ritchie, to me, has always been an insincere fiddle-faddler and a cynical wanker, and all of a sudden he’s made a masterful, pared-to-the-bone Afghanistan war film for the ages? Pruned-down realism, emotional restraint, somber emotional tone…what the hell happened to the Ritchie I’ve known since Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (’98), or over the last quarter-century?

All these years he’s been saying “I’m a slick hack without a soul, a slick hack without a soul, a slick hack without a soul” and then he’s suddenly saying “wait, scratch that…I’m now a human being with a soul, and I’ve made a lean-and-mean war film that believes in honor and paying your debts and indisputable realism”?

HE to friendo (Friday, 4.21, 8:50 pm): “The Ritchie film is amazing. How could he make a slick, cynical piece of empty shit like Operation Fortune and then turn around and make The Covenant?”

Friendo to HE: “Indeed…How could he make these slick, empty-fake gangster films for 25 years and then make The Covenant? Really glad you liked it!”

Based on a script co-penned by Ritchie, Ivan Atkinson and Marn Davies, The Covenant feels like it’s based on a true story. It isn’t, but who cares? Remember that hairy combat sequence in The Hurt Locker in which Ralph Fiennes played a pivotal role? That’s what The Convenant mostly feels like apart from a Santa Clarita interlude and the gung-ho finale.

Jake Gyllenhaal is rooted and riveting as U.S. Army sergeant John Kinley, extra-sharp and focused and always looking for trouble out of the corner of his eyes.

But you know who steals this film? The second-billed, 45-year-old Dar Salim as Ahmed, Kinley’s interpreter who’s just as much in the crosshairs as Kinley, and who rescues the wounded Kinley from brutal Taliban termination during Act Two, and in turn is rescued by Kinley in Act Three. (Ritchie’s film was originally titled The Interpreter.)

You can’t take your eyes off Salim through the film, and the only time he doesn’t quite punch through and almost recedes into the background is during the thrilling, action-packed finale, which I didn’t mind at all because it’s truly wonderful to see the bad guys get ripped to pieces with burning hot lead.

And then a certain gut-punch wells up during the end credits, when we’re reminded that more than 300 Afghan interpreters and their families have been murdered by the Taliban, with God knows how many more currently in hiding, despite U.S. authorities having pledged to give them gold-plated visas for travelling to the U.S.

Seriously shot up and sinking in and out of consciousness, Gyllenhaal is carried up and down mountain trails and shielded from Taliban homicidals by Salim. He’s sent back home while Salim remains in-country, but there’s no peace in his soul…not a chance. Jake / Kinley knows he has to covertly return to Afghanistan and somehow get Salim / Ahmed and his family out of Afghanistan and into U.S. soil. It’s not easy and certainly not inexpensive, but the debt must be honored. Eventually it is.

It was only a few weeks ago, in my review of Operation Fortune, that I was insisting that Ritchie is a highly skilled but superficial-minded hack. The Covenant has proved me wrong. He may revert to hackery and whoredom down the road, but from this moment on I will never again call him a soul-less hustler. He has earned new stripes with this film.