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The Covenant by Renny Harlin
Review by Rogan Marshall
Allumination DVD  ISBN/ITEM#: B000HA4WN4
Date: 03 October, 2006 List Price $29.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

Cast: Steven Strait, Sebastian Stan, Laura Ramsey, Taylor Kitsch, Toby Hemingway...

In an opening montage composed of the kind of ultraedited imagery that supposedly fascinates young people and is starting to look like wallpaper to me, we are informed that "the power" - of witchcraft, that is – actually existed, as a built-in genetic type of thing, among five founding families in Ipswitch, Massachusetts. Only four of the original five families still exist; their magic abilities are still handed down to the eldest male of each generation, presently four too-cute seventeen-year old boys played by Taylor Kitsch, Toby Hemingway, Chase Crawford, and the lead, Steven Strait. The complex story that these boys protagonize involves social power struggles among them driven by the mechanics of their abilities and the secret society the boys comprise, soap opera melodramatics between them and their women (Laura Ramsey and Jessica Lucas), and, in the movie's weaker second half, a magical combat between the hero Caleb and the new kid at school, an evil teen witch named Chase (Sebastian Stan).

Renny Harlin is a second-string studio director whose credits often involve attempts to rescue slightly dingy name recognition material (Die Hard 2, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4, the last successful Stallone action programmer Cliffhanger, and the recent Exorcist prequel were all Renny Harlin pictures). On The Covenant, Harlin brings vigorous youth-like energy to bear on a messy script full of used ideas by seasoned genre hack J.S. Cardone. Carefully planned trendily frantic shooting and cutting and design invoke the heartless stand-back slickness of work by A-list glassblowers like Mann, Bay, and Schumacher. Certainly this movie consciously borrows from Schumacher's The Lost Boys one or two times too many for anyone's comfort, as well as The Craft, which was the first movie I remember deploying the Peter Jackson style wizard's battle which tiringly dominates The Covenant's special effects: actors wave at one another like they're hand signaling giant off screen puppeteers, who then violently jerk invisible strings attached to the signaler's opponent as indicated. Harlin and his f/x team use lots of Matrixesque slomo-and-rotate moments too – another piece of business not quite familiar enough to call cliché, but close enough for picky or sensitive audiences.

It's also all too obvious that Harlin and Cardone et al are all too consciously regearing major elements of the Harry Potter franchise for a slightly older audience: the brooding prevalence of the prep school locations, the use of magical education as rite-of-passage, a fascination with its characters' repetitious circadian schedules that threatens to bury the thrust of the narrative entirely, are all borrowed from Ms. Rowling and her screen adaptors. Even aside from much thoughtless authorial theft, The Covenant is sometimes slow or confusing; to go into it at length is to waste space and time, but suffice to say, even on the unassuming level its creators embrace, this movie fails a lot, due to a script that badly needed another draft.

All this being said, I must admit, against all odds, I found this muddled mess kind of fun to suffer through. While these Dawson's Creek/90210-style kids certainly don't resemble the Central Massachusetts "old money" offspring they supposedly represent (someone should have explained to the filmmakers that people from Massachusetts never look so healthy or smile this much), they are awful cute, and some of them are charismatic and even act a little, notably Laura Ramsey; the smart money says near unknown Ms. Ramsey is on her way to bigger things. The Covenant never does a blessed thing one might consider exciting or unexpected; but neither does it often sink to unpleasant aesthetic lows, as almost all Hollywood "product" intended to exploit "“teen" audiences almost always does. Like its models The Craft and The Lost Boys, like the attractive young cast members of all three movies taken individually, this picture gets a lot of mileage out of sheer animal charm.

12-year olds who’ve just outgrown Harry Potter, and haven’t seen the more effective movies I just mentioned, will think this one is pretty good. Older audiences trapped in the fallout range will find The Covenant heavily sprinkled with moments that work, divided evenly among pleasant PG cheesecake, shivery pseudo-Gothic atmosphere, light but genuine suspense, a romance you can almost care about, and fantasy/mystery plot mechanics dredged up from last year's leftovers, on the level of brute minimal competence one expects from oft-employed hacks doing their job right.

Some of you, who know me well, will be shocked that I'm recommending something as slight and second rate as this, at all, even for "kids". But those of us with a taste for genre material have had an unexpectedly slow summer at the cinema; and while it only half works, The Covenant does work like real genre fantasy, when it does, which is more than any of the A-list blockbusting Hollywood fantastic films has managed to do so far this year.

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