I’ve never read a Tom Clancy novel. I’ve seen a few adaptations of his work and have a general sense of his fundamental airport-fiction-with-militaristic-themes vibe, but I can’t say that I have a deep familiarity with his oeuvre.
But it’s all a matter of taste – the dude has topped the NYT best-seller list 17 times and has overall sales figures in nine digits, so what do I know?
However, I have to imagine that the new film adaptation “Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse” doesn’t necessarily live up to the man’s legacy, even with his name right there in the title. Directed by Stefano Sollima and co-written by Taylor Sheridan and Will Staples, the Amazon Studios original is a bit of a mess, with a convoluted plot and motivationless characters careening from set piece to set piece without a whole lot of rhyme or reason along the way.
Now, the film has Michael B. Jordan as its lead, which helps compensate for the more egregious flaws, but the reality is that as talented as he is, he’s just one actor. And even with all those muscles, he can’t lift this film out of the chaotic morass; he’s definitely an action star, but even a star’s shine can’t hide the ragged edges of this one.
Jordan stars as Senior Chief John Kelly, an elite U.S. Navy Seal. He and his team – led by Lt. Commander Karen Greer (Jodie Turner-Smith, “Queen & Slim”) – are on a mission in Syria to rescue a CIA operative taken hostage by ISIS forces. However, as the extraction plays out, it becomes clear that the captors are not ISIS members but Russian military. When Kelly protests after the fact, he’s shut down by CIA officer Robert Ritter (Jamie Bell, “Rocketman”).
A few months later, Kelly is on the verge of retiring from active duty and venturing into private security. That all changes when members of the extraction team are picked off one by one. This includes an attempt on Kelly’s life, an attempt that badly injures but ultimately fails to kill him; instead, it costs him his wife Pam (Lauren London, “Always and Forever”) and his unborn child.
From there, Kelly tries to track down the one remaining man who was part of the raid on his home. With some reluctant help from the likes of Greer and Secretary of Defense Clay (Guy Pearce, “Bloodshot”), he manages to get intel that moves him toward his goal – a goal that he will stop at nothing to achieve, even as his fury lands him in fight after fight and takes him everywhere from prison to foreign lands where his mere presence could touch off an international incident.
But while Kelly seeks vengeance, there are other forces at work – forces that have their own reasons for wanting John Kelly to succeed in his mission … and fail to return from it.
I could get into the weeds regarding the plot of “Without Remorse” (I hope you’ll forgive me for not including Tom Clancy’s name every time I mention the film – I imagine the late author certainly would), but the truth is that many of the particulars don’t really make a lot of sense. A lot of significant action takes place without any indication being given of WHY things are happening; I don’t need my hand held when I’m watching an action movie, but you have to give me something. I’m not here for intricate, delicate plotting, but some indication of motivation would be nice.
But there’s none of that here. From the moment the bullets start flying at the top to the frankly absurd MCU-style mid-credits cut scene that is clearly intended to set up a sequel I can’t imagine that anyone could possibly want, we’re never given any real notion of why anyone is doing what they’re doing. Oh, there are a couple of stock jingoistic speeches tossed out here and there and we get some villainous “doing it for your own good” boilerplate in a few spots, but even that is rote and largely disconnected from what we’re actually experiencing on-screen.
(And don’t get me started on how they straight-up fridged Pam Kelly; murdering female characters for the sake of motivating male ones has never been a good look, but it’s particularly off-putting in the current climate. I’m fine with the seeking of vengeance, but maybe let’s let the woman in the equation be something with actual depth and not a convenient plot device.)
The action sequences are solid, albeit a bit on the generic side. Still, set pieces are what drive films of this ilk, and there are a couple of good ones. Unfortunately, there are no great ones (though there’s an underwater sequence that comes close), and pretty good action is far from enough to make a confusing muddle like this work.
My understanding is that very little of the actual book made the transition to the screen. It’s no surprise, really – the project has been in development hell almost since the book first came out in 1993, with names like Keanu Reeves and Tom Hardy attached at times, so it stands to reason that we’d see plenty of evolution (such as it is) over the subsequent quarter-century.
Landing a legit A-lister like Jordan after such a drawn-out process is an absolute coup. And honestly, Jordan gives it his all and comes as close as anyone could to making this film work. He’s a talented actor and also has the action chops to comfortably inhabit this role – there are only a handful of dudes with that kind of one-two punch. He’s very good here – I only wish the movie around him matched his efforts. The rest of the cast never gets the runway necessary to elevate the script, so while folks like Turner-Smith, Bell and Pearce go hard, they can only do so much.
“Without Remorse” is generic action fare, the film equivalent of ordering off a laminated menu. Despite the good faith efforts of Jordan and the rest of the cast, the unnecessary convolution of the script proves too difficult to overcome – particularly when we’re looking at B+ action sequences at best. It could have been worse, but it should have been so much better.
Perhaps there should be some remorse after all.
[2 out of 5]