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When it comes to stories authored or at least inspired by Tom Clancy, audiences typically know what they are in store for. The writer made a name for himself with stories of espionage in and around the Cold War era, and as such you go into any project sporting his name on it with a pretty good idea of what you’re going to get. This is not a trend that is bucked by Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse, as while the arms race with the Soviet Union ended decades ago, director Stefano Sollima’s movie finds a way to bring the classic conflict into the present.
The work that’s done to make that happen is a touch on the basic side, resulting in first and third acts that don’t quite pack the punch you hope for, but the film finds its source of energy elsewhere, featuring a strong (albeit simple) revenge storyline for its protagonist, an captivating performance from Michael B. Jordan, and some impressive and hard-hitting action sequences.
Without Remorse takes its name and basic premise from the Tom Clancy novel published in 1993, but apart from being an origin for hero John Kelly (Michael B. Jordan) – the hero eventually known as John Clark – it unfolds a mostly original story written by Taylor Sheridan and Will Staples. Opening in Syria, the movie introduces its protagonist as he executes his last assignment as a Navy SEAL, working with CIA agent Robert Ritter (Jamie Bell) to rescue an abducted operative. While the team is able to succeed, it’s an effort not without complications, starting with the fact that the CIA lied about the identities of the hostage takers in the mission brief.
Returning home to his very pregnant wife (Lauren London), John makes plans to retire from war and dedicate his life to his family – but circumstances don’t allow it. In retaliation for the job in Syria, hit squads are sent to attack members of the Navy SEAL team, and in the aftermath John is left barely clinging to life.
With nothing else to live for, John becomes hell bent on revenge, and while the CIA doesn’t want him involved, his friend and fellow soldier Karen Greer (Jodie Turner-Smith) slips him information to get him on the right path to those responsible. As the situation is untangled, however, the payback-seeking hero begins to understand that what has been happening all around him is part of a plot with potentially world-changing consequences.
Without Remorse isn’t exactly overflowing with originality, but it tells an exciting story.
Without Remorse gets off to an extremely rough start. The concept of a male hero being motivated to action by the death of the woman he loves is a trope so tired that modern pop culture has summed it up in a single word (fridging), and in combination with the blatantly antagonistic stonewalling by the CIA and the whole “last mission” cliche the majority of the first act feels tired. But when it gets all of its setup and exposition out of the way, and just lets John Kelly get to work, the movie manages to get back up on its feet and deliver an action-heavy ride with strong development for its hero.
Unfortunately it’s not a level that the film is able to sustain up until the end credits, as a pair of third act reveals (which I won’t reveal here) come out as obvious and flat, but the good in the structure does outweigh the issues, as the script by Taylor Sheridan and Will Staples effectively sets up some thrilling set pieces that Stefano Sollima uses to deliver some seat-gripping, eye-widening sequences.
The action scenes in Without Remorse are top notch, and alone make it worth a watch.
The filmmaker demonstrated some sharp action instincts a few years ago with his English-language directorial debut, 2018’s Sicario: Day Of The Soldado, but Sollima’s work in Without Remorse is a whole other beast, as he shows a clear skill for making the audience hold its breath (and not just during the multiple underwater sequences either). It’s authenticity draws you in and puts you right in the middle of things alongside the characters – and that’s pretty damn thrilling when said characters are quietly making moves towards a target, or are in a blown-out building taking sniper fire. It’s definitely a big screen movie, which makes its streaming release somewhat disappointing, but genre-lovers will be able to appreciate it nonetheless.
Michael B. Jordan develops a great character with an emotional and badass performance.
A lot of Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse is carried on Michael B. Jordan’s charisma as a lead, as you feel compelled to see him both get justice and grow beyond his own pain – but it’s also just a remarkably impressive physical performance that demonstrates his very real viability as an action star. Jordan was called on to do his own stunts in the making of the blockbuster, and while we’ve seen him throw punches and use weapons previously in the Creed movies and Black Panther, this film demonstrates he has a hell of a lot more to offer in the genre. It’s a demanding role, as we see him do everything from brawling with prison guards to rescuing gear from a sunken plane, and the actor pulls it all off flawlessly. Needless to say, the franchise potential is very real and very exciting.
Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse is actually a film that has been decades in the making, as attempts to bring John Kelly’s story to the big screen date back to when the book was first published. It can often be the case that projects with that kind of history eventually become monuments to compromise, as exciting ideas are put aside in favor of just getting the movie made, but this story gets a happy ending. It likely won’t be remembered as the best action blockbuster of 2021, its impressive cinematic qualities somewhat muted by the usage of overused plot devices, but it is a thrilling experience and a spotlight for some great talent.