Friday, September 8, 2006
From the opening credits (which flip through pages of a book on paganism intercut with scenes from later in the film), The Covenant looks like a pilot for a TV series. Buffy meets Charmed but with a guy spin. Or maybe it was pitched as Harry Potter with attitude and an American accent. The first scene in the film makes you think of the teen vampire film The Lost Boys in which the cool, sexy vamps formed a kind of gang, and the tag line for the film was "sleep all day, party all night, it's cool to be a vampire." Well in The Covenant, the main characters are not vampires but the have a "power" and a similar sexy swagger. They are known as the "sons of Ipswich," the descendents of the original founding fathers of the community who formed a secret society to keep their powers secret. They also form a "gang" of the hottest guys at the elite private school. Only the males in these families have power and at 13 they get their first taste of it and at 18, they "ascend" or achieve the heady rush of full-blown powers. That ascension is apparently something of a temptation as well because the powers are seductive. The only catch is that the more you use your powers the faster you age.
Caleb (Steven Strait) is about to ascend. This has made him the target of the new kid in school Chase (Sebastian Stan), who knows the group's secret and wants Caleb's powers. This leads to a showdown that looks a lot like the school yard battle from Korea's Volcano High. In fact, a lot of The Covenant looks lifted from somewhere else. Director Renny Harlin draws on a variety of sources but can't make any of them work for him. He taps into horror, the occult, teen drama, and more. It's like throwing things on the wall and seeing what sticks, which in this case is nothing.
The story is slow to start despite the pounding beat and fast cuts. The characters -- most of whom have the same hunky male model look -- are so thinly drawn that you can't tell them apart for the first 30 minutes (thankfully one of the sons of Ipswich is blonde so you can separate him from the pack early on). And because they are such cookie cutter characters, you don't really care for anyone. That makes building suspense or dramatic tension difficult since there's nothing to engage you in the story or the fates of the characters.
Harlin rose to fame with Die Hard 2, did a nice turn with The Long Kiss Goodnight, but hasn't delivered anything else of note since. As a director, he lacks style and just has a kind of bull in a China shop sensibility of storytelling. He clumsily pushes his story forward with brute force and no finesse.
There's a lot of effects work in the film and for the most part it's pretty slick. The glowing eyes and make-up effects all look good. But like so many American films, The Covenant fails to employ wirework (where actors defy gravity) in a manner that's believable. Asian films (and Hong Kong films in particular) have used wirework to dazzling effect, and with incredible grace and fluidity. American films (with a few exceptions like The Matrix , which employed Hong Kong fight choreographers) may lift their actors on wires but they always look clumsy and uncomfortable. But then the actors in The Covenant tend to look clumsy and uncomfortable even when they have their feet firmly planted on the ground.
Harlin has definitely assembled an attractive cast and he shows off their young bodies as often as he can. I think the men were cast more for their abs than their acting. Harlin delivers gratuitous shower scenes that at least serve up both sexes, although the guys get to roughhouse in the gym showers while the girl gets "stalked" in the dorm shower. There are also a lot of sexist breast and butt shots, the kind of things that in the anime world would be referred to as "fan service." But while these pretty boys and girls photograph well, none of them can act. Although the script (by J.S. Cardonne) is so bad that maybe it's not their fault.
The Covenant (rated PG-13 for language, violence and sexual content) fashions an ending that leaves room for a possible sequel. But hopefully this is all we'll ever have to see of these characters or their covenant.