Including “Tom Clancy’s” in the film’s title “Without Remorse”, is a direct flare for fans of his character of Jack Ryan, who has already been portrayed several times on screen.
Clancy’s 1993 best-selling book “Without Remorse” is an origin story for one of Ryan-verse’s characters, John Clark, who was once played by Willem Dafoe and Liev Schrieber, but now Michael B. Jordan picks up the origin story of Clark, née Kelly, a highly skilled Navy SEAL whose life is drastically changed by violence.
Directed by Stefano Sollima, who directed “Sicario: Day of the Soldado,” and written by Taylor Sheridan and Will Staples, the screenplay is a free adaptation and update of the book. The scenery for Vietnam is out, and Russia is like the big bad, because everything old is new again. What remains is John’s thirst for revenge, a white-hot rage engine fueled by the murder of his wife, Pam (Lauren London). The Dead Wife is a well-trodden movie trope, a one-stop-shop for writers to add instant pathos and motivation, as well as body count rationale. In the cinematic world of violent and vengeful men, what is a woman if not dead, just a memory to kill for?
John has a simple quest, avenge the murder of Pam. But in doing so, he uncovers a network of cynical political maneuvers, orchestrated for the optics, headlines and talking points of cable news. This conspiracy behind the story sounds like a paranoid political thriller from the 1970s, but Sollima is not Alan J. Pakula. Rather than a slick, thin, or even interesting aesthetic, “Without Remorse” is brutal and muddy, with the actors laden with military hardware, bumping and bumping into each other, shooting unseen enemies in dusty, dimly lit rooms. The characters, whose names we barely know, let slip vast swathes of script in conference rooms, bathrooms, and high-speed vehicles. The moments of humanization feel flattering. Aside from a few nifty shots and stunts, as well as a personal demonstration of Jordan’s excellence in bicep development, the film is an eyesore, more like “Call of Duty” than anything truly cinematic ( although video games are more like daytime movies).
The action is rote, the plot predictable, the comedian usable. But the film takes on an extra layer of meaning with a black actor in the lead role and a black actress, Jodie Turner-Smith, playing John’s closest ally, Karen. We never speak openly about race, but in the subtext there is a new meaning, perhaps unintentional, new.
Centering the story around a Black SEAL and his family destroyed by state-sanctioned gun violence seems particularly crude and urgent at this particular time. When senior CIA officials refuse to investigate the murder of a shot black woman in her bed, it resonates outside the film itself. As a plot, it’s John’s personal motivation for violence and revenge. As a battered story in a 2021 film, it inadvertently lends social relevance, following the police shootout of Breonna Taylor and the Black Lives Matter movement.
When John and Karen talk to each other about the CIA betrayal, it’s in meaningful statements about their roles as black members of the service, lamenting that they “fall for what America could be.” As John imagines himself playing by his own rules, “what a pawn could do to a king,” it becomes a sort of revenge fantasy not only for him, but for who he represents. The reality he discovers is that everyone is some kind of pawn, kings dressed not in armor but in the woolen tweed of bureaucracy. It’s cynical, but in a way, okay.
“Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse” is available on Amazon Prime