‘Without Remorse’ Review: Regrettably, It’s Not Great
While the differences are not deliberate, it’s instructive to compare the new Tom Clancy thriller, Without Remorse, to the first one that featured Clancy’s mega-badass Navy SEAL and covert operative John Clark, 1994’s Clear and Present Danger. That film primarily focuses on Clancy’s other hero, Jack Ryan (played by Harrison Ford), with Clark (Willem Dafoe) in the secondary role. While he provides some of the requisite action demanded of a big military thriller, that picture’s primary focus is political intrigue; conspiracies within the United States government, and Ryan’s dogged pursuit of truth. You even see him do something the hero of a modern movie would almost never do: Read some books in order to hunt down a key piece of information.
John Clark — or, as he’s referred to for most of Without Remorse, John Kelly — is not one for reading. He’s much too busy, and much too angry, and so is Without Remorse. Granted, it’s adapting a different Clancy novel, and this time Clark/Kelly is the central figure. Where Ryan by the time of Clear and Present Danger is less of a field agent than a bureaucrat that winds up getting shot at a lot, the Kelly of Without Remorse, played by Michael B Jordan, is basically the ultimate soldier on a single-minded quest for revenge at all costs. What allusions are made to the politics around Kelly’s unit get pushed to the background so they don’t get in the way of one explosive sequence after another.
Those begin with the very first shot of the film, where Jordan’s Kelly and his team of SEALs rescue a hostage from the Russian military in Syria. The mission is a success, but not long after Kelly returns to his impossibly chic home in the United States, the rest of his team is gunned down. Kelly gets targeted, too, but manages to survive because, well, he’s John Kelly. Tragically, his pregnant wife (Lauren London) gets caught in the crossfire.
You probably don’t need me to tell you what happens next: Kelly sets out to avenge his wife’s death. Predictably, that leads him and another team of elite warriors back overseas, on the trail of one of the assassins who survived the botched hit on Kelly and his family. To get his chance at revenge, Kelly willfully allows the Secretary of Defense (Guy Pearce) and a cunning CIA operative (Jamie Bell) to use him as a pawn in their larger schemes. Those are Kelly’s own words; one of the few humanizing details offered by Taylor Sheridan and Will Staples’ brusque script is Kelly’s love of chess.
Otherwise, the character is little more than a collection of action movie cliches. The only things that define him are his loyalty to his men and his determination to kill those responsible for his family’s deaths. The only emotions he feels are rage and resolve. Johnson, one of our best young actors, is certainly capable of embodying this sort of angry, powerful character. He’s also capable of a lot more than that, as his performances in films like Creed and Black Panther and on TV shows like The Wire and Friday Night Lights showed.
The movie around Jordan is just like Kelly himself: Cold, detached, and brutal. Director Stefano Sollima previously worked with Sheridan on the Hitman sequel Day of the Soldado. That film seemed to iron out all of the original’s quirks and ambiguity in exchange for an efficient but superficial cop movie. Without Remorse gives a similar sheen of bland professionalism to Tom Clancy’s universe. What little remains of the moral swamp Jack Ryan waded through in films like Clear and Present Danger only exists now to be dispatched by John Kelly with as little fuss as possible. The film is straightforward to fault.
A lot of movies that were designed for theaters have gone straight to streaming over the past year. Some definitely suffered for it; Coming 2 America would have been a more fun movie in a crowded theater and Soul would have looked beautiful on a big screen. Without Remorse, on the other hand, benefits from a home release. It’s nominally a big summer action movie, but its workmanlike plotting and lean dialogue push it closer in tone and scale to something like Death Wish if it was set in the world of the military. It lends itself well to TV viewing, where there’s no pressure of a movie being “worth” the price of a ticket, and less expectation that an adventure movie take on larger than life qualities.
Still, even in more generous viewing conditions at home, Without Remorse is at best a relatively painless way to pass two hours in the company of an overqualified Michael B. Jordan. The film doesn’t measure up to the better Clancy adaptations of the 1990s like Clear and Present Danger or The Hunt For Red October.
-The CIA agent played by Jamie Bell is named Robert Ritter — ironically, a younger version of the same character who hounds Jack Ryan at the Department of Defense in Clear and Present Danger, where he’s played by Henry Czerny.
-Amazon already has its own Jack Ryan television series, and there are supposedly plans to continue John Clark’s story in a Rainbow Six movie. Personally, I hope it has a little more book reading.
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