The vast bibliography of the late Tom Clancy has inspired countless film and TV adaptations, but it’s also led to massively successful video-game series like Splinter Cell and Ghost Recon. Those games, and many other military-driven shooter games, feel like the true inspiration for the new straight-to-streaming film Without Remorse. Ostensibly, this actioner starring Michael B. Jordan is meant to inspire a potential long-running franchise with the tough-as-nails John Kelly taking down bad guys worldwide without any…well, just read the title. But Without Remorse has an incredibly functional, bland storytelling approach, making it as soulless as a cutscene from one of the many Clancy-inspired video games.
Jordan cuts a convincing enough figure as Kelly, a Navy SEAL who leads a mission in Syria in the opening minutes that pushes him and his cohorts into intensely heartbreaking tragedy. Though the mission seems successful at the outset, it leads a band of mostly faceless Russians to take revenge on the Americans who took part. Though Kelly barely survives his attack, his pregnant wife is killed in the melee, leaving him distraught and vengeful. Kelly initially has his sights set on the remaining Russian who managed to escape before our hero took him down, though it eventually becomes clear to Kelly – far later than it will to any audience member with even a passing familiarity with action thrillers of this ilk – that there may be higher echelons of banal villainy worth taking down beyond one assassin.
Fans of Clancy’s work no doubt recognize the character known as John Kelly, or by his alias John Clark; he was previously brought to life on the big screen by Willem Dafoe in Clear and Present Danger, the last film starring Harrison Ford as Jack Ryan, and by Liev Schreiber in The Sum of All Fears, the only film starring Ben Affleck as Ryan. But those movies were years ago, so a new generation is here to step into the shoes of familiar characters like John or potentially conniving CIA agent Robert Ritter (played here by Jamie Bell). Though the current iteration of Jack Ryan, John Krasinski, doesn’t show up here, the same basic and straightforward approach to character development is present. Perhaps the nicest way to put it is that Without Remorse is an uncomplicated film, a throwback to the similarly straightforward Jack Ryan series of the 1990s.
But Without Remorse isn’t quite deserving of such kindness. Reuniting Stefano Sollima and Taylor Sheridan, respectively the director and writer of the absolutely heinous Sicario: Day of the Soldado, Without Remorse is aggressively basic. Sollima has little interest in staging action sequences or plot twists in a way that genuinely causes surprise or suspense. (One of the first acts of vengeance against the SEAL team comes when the Russians run one of the SEALs over while he’s outside his house, taking in the garbage; it’s a vicious act presented so blandly as to make you do a double take, less out of shock that a death has occurred, and more than it’s been presented so indistinctly and unremarkably.) Co-writer Sheridan (whose career has soared since the success of Sicario and Hell or High Water) continues to imply through his work that those two films may have been the benefactors of great strokes of luck or just the right directors and actors.
The cast of Without Remorse can only be faulted for so much – when you have Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Bell, Guy Pearce (as a government bigwig), and Jodie Turner-Smith as your core characters, you’ve at least done an effective job of stacking the deck in front of the camera. That doesn’t mean the cast is without fault, but because the script – by Sheridan and Will Staples – is so uniformly pedestrian, it gives the actors little room to do anything of note. (Jordan’s one scene of emoting, as he expresses his anguish at his pregnant wife’s death and the loss of his unborn child, is wince-inducing, both because it stands out like a sore thumb and because the bigness of his emotion feels very over-the-top on a TV screen instead of the big screen.) The most notable member of the cast is comedian/actor Brett Gelman as one of the Russian baddies, less because his performance stands out and more because it’s immensely weird to see such a deadpan humorist showing up in a dead-serious film like this.
Despite the mostly younger cast, Without Remorse is a bland throwback to the late 1980s and early 1990s, hearkening to an era of such simplistic notions of good and bad that its script could have been unearthed from a time capsule. Sollima’s direction is journeyman-like, which wouldn’t be a demerit if the film he was directing didn’t feel so lifeless. Without Remorse may have skipped theaters – it was produced by Paramount Pictures, but sold to Amazon – but it’s designed to create a franchise for Jordan. He could easily be an action hero, as the Creed films have proved. But Without Remorse isn’t the vehicle for his aspirations. It’s dour, grim, and intensely forgettable.
/Film Rating: 4 out of 10
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