The title of “Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse” seems both disingenuous and vaguely desperate in Stefano Sollima’s new film, as if peddling the late author’s name might supply a badly needed credibility boost. When a movie is this anonymous, this visually and narratively indifferent, the extra brand recognition can only help. The movie’s fronted by Michael B. Jordan, who’s worn the roles of actor and movie star interchangeably so far in his still growing career. He’s tried his hands at blockbusters (Fantastic Four) before and has rebooted franchises (Creed) before, but action star is a new notch in the belt. And by stepping into the boots of ex-Navy SEAL John Kelly (later to be known as John Clark), Jordan is now the first black actor to play a Clancy hero, an achievement that would mean more if he’d been given something interesting to do.
When looking at some of the behind-the-camera talent, you wouldn’t think that’d be too difficult, given that screenwriter Taylor Sheridan knows his way around a pulpy plot (Hell or High Water and Wind River) and how he freely deviates from the narrative specifics of Without Remorse, the 1993 bestseller that serves as Kelly/Clark’s origin story. Sheridan and cowriter Will Staples have updated the book’s Vietnam War backdrop with a superficially topical present-day plot that begins in war-torn Aleppo, where Kelly and other SEALs take part in a hostage recuse mission that turns out to be something much more suspicious. But don’t bother parsing the geopolitics or thinking too hard about the movie’s reheated Cold War paranoia. All that really matters is that not long after Kelly has returned and settled home in Washington D.C., his pregnant wife Pam (Lauren London) is brutally murdered.
Personal tragedy has spiraled countless antiheros on a righteous rampage. But Kelly’s tragedy doesn’t feel shattering or even life-altering; it feels rote, and coldly dull. Barely five minutes after Pam is introduced, she and her unborn child are summarily dispatched by Russian assassins in a home invasion that leaves Kelly himself seriously wounded. But he swiftly rebounds, setting out to find out who’s behind this and other attacks — he’s not the only ex-SEAL who’s been targeted — and make them pay.
Forced to work through the grief mostly off-screen, Jordan throws himself into the payback narrative with one-note determination. The ensuing wall-to-wall action does afford a few highlights; seen mostly in Kelly’s no-prisoners-taken melees. Before long, he’s enlisted for a mission to Russia — overseen by a withdrawn secretary of Defense (Guy Pearce) and a stubborn CIA director (Jamie Bell), which will also see him work with his toughest critic and ally Lt. Commander Karen Greer (Jodie Turner-Smith) — aimed at bringing the relevant hostiles to justice. There, Kelly will be shocked to learn, amid claustrophobic underwater escapes, explosive shootouts and tedious chess metaphors, that war-profiteering takes ahold of who’s in charge and who’s pulling the strings.
The intended shocking-force of that revelation suggests that neither Kelly nor his creators have seen many political thrillers. Sollima directs this with workmanlike qualities, in a similar vein to what he did with Sicario: Day of the Soldado, a self-admiringly topical action movie that turned a phenomenal movie (the original Sicario) into a would-be franchise. Similar plans are afoot for the John Clark character, to judge by the laborious sequel foreshadowing going on. I kind of loathe the pyramid-scheme-like designs of the contemporary Hollywood action franchise, which demands your investment in a lousy product now in exchange for ostensibly bigger and better payoffs down the line. But future installments could be something, I guess. It’s a movie that truly stays true to its title, just without intrigue or surprise, placing all its bets ruthlessly on future potential that it doesn’t really seem to have. With all its positives barely at the peripheral, Without Remorse ultimately feels like an amalgamation of lifeless machismo posturing, being equally detached and uncalculated.
Without Remorse is available on Prime Video