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The Covenant (2006)

Jesse Hassenger

All the stuff that should be cool feels only listless.

The Covenant

Director: Renny Harlin
Cast: Steven Strait, Sebastian Stan, Laura Ramsey, Chace Crawford, Wendy Crewson
Distributor: Sony
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: Sony
First date: 2006
US DVD Release Date: 2007-01-02

Hear me out: the remix of White Zombie's "More Human than Human" that plays at the beginning of The Covenant (now on DVD) is a metaphor for the entire movie. The song, which you'd probably recognize from action-movies and their trailers (the recent eighties throwback The Marine, for example, or the trailer for the 1997 Howie Long spectacular Firestorm) even if you don't know it by name, has long outlived its usefulness as a signifier of impending ass-kicking. Yet as worn out as that particular music cue is, using the remix is far worse, providing nothing fresh while denying the audience the minor but palpable enjoyment of wallowing in an unabashed cliché.

That's The Covenant all over: bad, yet not bad enough. This male gloss on The Craft -- a privileged-teen thriller about young men with powers threatened by the new warlock on the block -- has the makings of wildly entertaining schlock, but instead it plays like an episode of some boring show on The CW you've never bothered to watch.

What makes this all the more frustrating is that the director, Renny Harlin, should not be making a boring crappy thriller. Regarded, with utter fairness, as sort of a poor man's John McTiernan, Harlin has made at least two gloriously ridiculous late-'90s big-studio B-movies: The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996) and his masterpiece, Deep Blue Sea (1999), which dares to dream of a world where Jaws can be improved by adding more and bigger sharks. He also made the second and weakest Die Hard movie; he lives and breathes knock-offs, but The Covenant isn't much of one. All the stuff that should be cool feels listless: powers are ill-defined and videogame-y (lots of energy bursts, Street Fighter style), violence is unimaginative, and despite the horror overtones, the movie can't do better than a bed full of spiders for scares.

Harlin is the only cast or crew member present on the DVD commentary, the sole non-promotional extra feature, which seems destined for The Onion AV Club's "Commentary Tracks of the Damned" feature. Harlin sounds like a relaxed, detached professional on the track, offering behind-the-scenes information on visual effects shots, the casting process and, especially, locations. Yes, this is one of those commentary tracks where the director answers the burning question "which parts of this were shot in which parts of Canada?" possibly to avoid talking about how what they shot turned out so utterly boring.

The commentary also features the old standby of explaining a particularly hacky detail as a creative solution to a minor problem. In this case, Harlin admits that the pre-credits expository scroll, stating the vague origin of the film's warlock dynasty, was "a little bit of an afterthought," subbing for some cut scenes of what I can only assume was expository dialogue (they're not included on the DVD). Hearing a director reveal that an awkward pre-credits explanation (that "explains" without much detail or sense) was not, in fact, an organic and vital part of the original screenplay is sort of like a behind-the-scenes featurette on how green-screen special effects work -- your interest is of inverse proportion to how many movies you've seen (and once the latter hits five or six, the former plunges below zero and never looks back).

I shouldn't pick too much on Harlin, though. In fact, The Covenant may be a sign that his career has come full circle; he started out on a Nightmare on Elm Street sequel before moving on to bigger-budgeted fare. If this new foray into teen-targeted horror begins his career cycle anew, his next stop should be an entertaining but unremarkable action sequel (I humbly submit the franchises Underworld, XXX, or, hey, Die Hard); sooner or later, we'll be back to something as good as Deep Blue Sea. In the meantime, The Covenant makes for a pretty crummy consolation prize.


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