This past weekend, Guy Ritchie released his second (!) movie so far in 2023: Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant. (Yes, the director’s name is part of the title.) While the film received enough critical acclaim to rank as the best Guy Ritchie movie so far, it didn’t attract too many people to see it.
That’s a shame because it’s one of this year’s best action pictures, one grounded in enough reality to make the violence seen onscreen seem necessary and vital instead of cheap and superfluous. It joins other great action movies set during modern warfare in Iraq, Somalia, and Afghanistan that probe the effects of violence on soldiers and civilians alike. If you’ve seen Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant and want more of the same intelligent approach to action, or just want a good movie to watch, here are 5 movies that will do the trick.
Three Kings (1999)
1999 was a great year for movies, with The Matrix, Being John Malkovich, The Insider, The Sixth Sense, and Boys Don’t Cry, among many others, impressing critics and audiences alike with their high-quality and sometimes innovative visual effects or narratives. Three Kings, David O’ Russell’s satirical action comedy starring George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, and Ice Cube, belongs in that group, if only because it was one of the few Hollywood movies at the time (and now) that tackled the tricky subject of the Gulf War in Iraq with irreverent humor that was reminiscent of past great anti-war comedies like M*A*S*H.
The film concerns a group of American soldiers who, bored with cleaning up the mess of the recently finished war, decide to chase buried treasure in Kuwait. Along the way, they find that the Gulf War they thought was over is still being fought by anti-Saddam Hussein dissidents, who resent the Americans’ presence in a conflict that isn’t about them. The movie is notable for finally giving Clooney a lead role worthy of his talents (it was released two years after the awful Batman & Robin), cemented Wahlberg’s rising star, and confirmed O. Russell as a director to look out for in the future. (He later made Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle, and last year’s Amsterdam.)
Three Kings is available to rent on Prime Video.
Black Hawk Down (2001)
Just as America entered into another war after 9/11, Hollywood released a movie about a smaller conflict not that many people knew about or had forgotten. Black Hawk Down concerns the Battle of Mogadishu, a conflict in Somalia that the U.S. became involved in around 1993. The real-life incident involved a Black Hawk helicopter crashing in enemy territory and the efforts to save the American troops left behind under seemingly impossible odds.
The movie is populated with a who’s who of stars and character actors popular at the time or destined to go on and do bigger things: Obi-Wan Kenobi‘s Ewan McGregor, Josh Hartnett, Orlando Bloom, Eric Bana, Tom Hardy, Jeremy Piven, Hugh Dancy, Ioan Gruffudd, and Game of Thrones‘ Nikolaj Coster-Waldau all appear as soldiers or assorted military personnel. The real star of the movie, however, is Ridley Scott’s superb direction, which combined Alien’s suspenseful thrills with the action theatrics he would show off in Gladiator. It’s no surprise Scott was nominated for Best Director that year or that the film won Oscars for Best Editing and Best Sound.
Black Hawk Down can be rented on Prime Video.
Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant isn’t Jake Gyllenhaal’s first tour of duty in a war movie. The Donnie Darko actor starred in the 2005 drama Jarhead, an adaptation of U.S. Marine’s Anthony Swofford’s memoir of the same name. As Swofford, Gyllenhaal shaved his head and delved deep into the role of a green Marine thrust into the Gulf War but finds out it’s not like all the war movies he’s seen when he was younger. Instead of combat and glory, he and his fellow troops mostly encounter boredom as they await orders to march into battle.
While a war movie about boredom doesn’t sound too intriguing, Jarhead is effective in detailing the daily life of a soldier who is caught up in government red tape and dreams of military glory. Gyllenhaal is effective as Swofford, but it’s Peter Sarsgaard, as Swofford’s gung-ho comrade Troy, who steals the show. Look out for the memorable sequence where Swofford and his unit walk through an oil field on fire at night.
Jarhead is streaming on Starz and Prime Video.
Stop-Loss is notable for being one of the first movies to tackle the Iraq War waged just after 9/11. It’s also notable for being one of the few war movies directed by a woman. Kimberly Pierce, who had directed Boys Don’t Cry nearly a decade earlier, made this her passion project, and told the story of a group of soldiers who grapple with the troubling after-effects of war as they return to their “normal” lives.
Ryan Phillippe and Magic Mike’s Last Dance star Channing Tatum star as friends and comrades Brandon King and Steve Shiner, who can’t seem to shake off their war-time experiences even as they resume their lives in a small Texas town. Suffering from PTSD, the two men try to reconcile with their past trauma while also encountering new orders to return to the battlefield. Stop-Loss has been overshadowed by the more popular and acclaimed The Hurt Locker in recent years, but it deserves a second look. It’s one of the few war movies that empathize with its subjects rather than portraying them as pawns in a vast game of war and bloodshed.
Stop-Loss is streaming for free on Pluto TV.
American Sniper (2014)
Everybody has a strong opinion about American Sniper. The 2014 Clint Eastwood movie is praised and condemned for its portrayal of real-life Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle, whose memoir formed the basis of the movie’s plot. American Sniper depicts Kyle’s multiple tours in Iraq after 9/11, where he quickly makes a name for himself with his expertise as a sniper. The movie follows Kyle’s journey as he returns home and back to the battlefield again, revealing his ongoing issues with PTSD and grappling with living with the reputation as “the deadliest marksman in U.S. military history.”
Eastwood’s film has been accused by some of glorifying military atrocities while others have praised it as an honest portrayal of how the war negatively affects soldiers and their families. Both things can be true at once, but American Sniper also features some of Eastwood’s best direction and an outstanding lead performance by Bradley Cooper, who embodies Kyle with an honesty and frankness few actors can pull off.
American Sniper is available to rent on Prime Video.