Tom Clancy may have died eight years ago, but new books (from lower profile writers credited in small print) and film/TV adaptations have continued at a steady pace. The middling Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014) was the last feature to bear Clancy’s name while his eponymous hero has found more success on the small screen with Amazon’s Jack Ryan series. The streamer picked up the latest film adaptation, Without Remorse, from Paramount after theatrical plans were scuttled, but fans hoping for anything resembling the source novel are out of luck. This is a streamlined origin story for Clancy’s second most popular character, but while the film stumbles its star shines — basically, you come for Clancy, but you’re staying for an intense and charismatic performance by Michael B. Jordan.
John Kelly (Jordan) and his fellow Navy SEALs undertake a should-be-simple-but-we-know-it-won’t-be mission into Syria under the team’s leader, Lt. Commander Karen Greer (Jodie Turner-Smith), and a shady CIA agent named Robert Ritter (Jamie Bell). Things go sideways as it comes clear that Ritter was holding back information, and three months later Kelly is back in the States with a pregnant wife and plans to retire with a job in the private sector. Plans change when two of his fellow SEALs are murdered and an attack on his own home leaves him wounded and his wife dead. Ritter and Secretary of Defense Thomas Clay (Guy Pearce) reveal that it was Russians getting revenge for what happened in Aleppo — and declare the score even (!) — but Kelly isn’t feeling all that forgiving. And the wheels of vengeance keep turning…
Clancy’s novel is a dense, character-rich story tackling violent threats both foreign and domestic, but Without Remorse tells a far simpler tale for the screen. Writers Taylor Sheridan and Will Staples pump up the action beats while minimizing the narrative into a fairly straightforward revenge story with the most obvious villain reveal since Benedict Cumberbatch said “My name is Khan.” Thankfully, both Jordan’s performance and director Stefano Sollima‘s execution of those action set-pieces almost make up for the otherwise flat script.
Sollima brought a similar eye for kinetic action sequences to his television series Gomorra (2014-2016) and Sicario: Day of the Soldado (2018), the latter of which was also scripted by Sheridan. Big shootouts bookend the film with the second laying waste to an apartment building, and other highlights include a plane crash, an intense and fiery interrogation, and a prison brawl. The prison fight is especially thrilling as it takes place in a cramped cell and is preceded by an amped up Kelly preparing by overflowing his sink, soaking his shirt, and wetting his ripped torso.
Jordan’s performance is the heart, soul, and muscle of the film, though, as he shifts from soldier to widower to avenger and beyond. The actor is a producer on the film and initially signed on for a two-picture deal — Without Remorse is intended to be followed by an adaptation of Clancy’s Rainbow Six — and he’s as committed here as he is with the higher profile Creed films. Kelly — the man who becomes John Clark (previously played by Willem Dafoe and Liev Schreiber) — is the fist and gun to Jack Ryan’s analytical brain, and it’s easy to envision further adventures with him. (Hell, now that they’re both at Amazon it’s also easy to see an eventual team-up.) It’s a shame then that the script doesn’t feel as invested in the character. Lip service is paid to the expendability of soldiers, both here and abroad, but rather than carry real weight on the subject it’s used mainly to point the film and its characters toward that intended sequel.
Speaking of those supporting characters, there’s no denying the caliber of talent brought on to bring them to life. Pearce is always reliable, and while Bell can’t quite fill Henry Czerny’s shoes as Ritter he does good work as a duplicitous prick. Turner-Smith is a standout with this ninety-degree turn from her character/genre in Queen & Slim (2019), and it’s a smart play making her Admiral Greer’s niece in an extra bit of continuity across the Clancyverse. Two of them will be welcome faces in the yet to be greenlit Rainbow Six.
Without Remorse ultimately lands above the likes of Shadow Recruit and The Sum of All Fears (2002) but well below the 90s trifecta of The Hunt for Red October (1990), Patriot Games (1992), and Clear and Present Danger (1994). It feels less like a Tom Clancy thriller and more like any number of generic action movies, and while that probably won’t surprise anyone, with the talents involved it was reasonable to expect more than just another story about a dead woman fueling an armed man’s grief.