Film Review – Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse
Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse (2021) operates as a throwback action thriller. Its biggest weakness is that it plays too much as a throwback. Adapted from Clancy’s novel, the story exists in the same world of espionage as his other famous character, Jack Ryan. We’re brought right back into the same Cold War tensions of The Hunt for Red October (1990), Patriot Games (1992), and Clear and Present Danger (1994). And once again, we watch as American operatives smooth out Russian conflicts before collapsing into all out war.
I can see why Michael B. Jordan would be attracted to this material. After the success of Black Panther (2018) and the Creed franchise, here was an opportunity to be the action star of an established property from a familiar writer, with the possibility to become its own long running franchise. And yet, despite Jordan being a charismatic onscreen personality, Without Remorse ends up being surprisingly lifeless. It feels mechanical, cruising on autopilot as it traverses the well-worn path of the genre. Every time we think it will elevate and provide something fresh and new, it downshifts into neutral. This feels as though it should’ve been released in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s.
Jordan is John Kelly, a highly trained and efficient Navy SEAL who works in counter terrorism. When we first meet him, Kelly and his team are in the midst of a rescue mission deep in the trenches of Aleppo, Syria. However, to their surprise, the enemies they confront are not ISIS but part of the Russian military. Fast forward a few months later, and we find Russian operatives infiltrating American soil, killing members of the SEAL team in retaliation. Kelly survives the late-night attack at his home, but tragically his wife ends up murdered. With the help of fellow marine Karen Greer (Jodie Turner-Smith), Secretary of Defense Thomas Clay (Guy Pierce), and CIA agent Robert Ritter (Jamie Bell), Kelly goes on the hunt for those responsible for the attack.
The death of Kelly’s wife is his main motivation for the rest of the film. He turns into a one-man wrecking crew, tracking down leads and interrogating people with little concern for his safety. In one scene, Kelly traps a Russian diplomat in their car right in front of an airport. With dozens of witnesses nearby, he proceeds to douse the car with gasoline, lights it on fire, and then hops into the car demanding info from the diplomat at gunpoint. Obviously, this is meant to show how far Kelly is willing to go to get his revenge and how much of a badass he is, but I wonder if there was a subtler way to do this? Is it worth going through all that trouble to get answers only to put your face out to the world, get noticed by authorities, or even getting yourself killed in the process?
The writing (Taylor Sheridan, Will Staples) does not take advantage of Jordan’s acting abilities. Once the plot is set into motion, Kelly becomes a one note character, a stoic force of nature whose only trait is his physicality. We know that he is an elite soldier with the skills to take down anyone, but the narrative wants to pound that message in. When Kelly gets into a fight inside of a prison cell, he has to make sure that he takes his shirt off and splashes water all over himself to highlight his ripped muscles. The dialogue is a collection of stiff one liners that aren’t goofy enough to be funny and not nuanced enough to be taken seriously. A ton of credit has to go to Jodie Turner-Smith to say a line like, “The only thing he has more than kills are medals,” with a straight face. And in terms of character building, Kelly sums it up with, “There’s something inside of me that I can’t turn off. A part of me won’t stop for anything. No remorse.”
The action set pieces appear to be well choreographed, but the direction (Stefano Sollima) and cinematography (Philippe Rouselot) blanket it with darkness. During a nighttime scene where Kelly must escape an airplane while it sinks underwater, the camera angles capture the feeling of the plane’s hull spinning out of the control. The problem is that it’s so underlit that the visuals look muddy and incomprehensible. Shootouts have a gritty, immediate aesthetic, but we don’t get a good sense of the geography. Characters just seem to be firing in all different directions. There’s no doubt that Jordan, along with many of the other actors, put in a lot of work training to move and look like experienced soldiers, it’s just too bad that we don’t get a chance to see them perform in full view.
Without Remorse has a lot of good qualities on paper, but the final product ends up leaving a lot to be desired. It’s headlined by a star actor but is burdened by a formulaic story that has been done many times before – and better. We’ve seen video game versions of this executed with more style and creativity. If you’re looking for something to fill up two hours of your time without much hassle, then this might be for you. But honestly, don’t we want more than that?