Avid fans of the Jack Ryan TV series or the five previous films based on Tom Clancy’s books, featuring action hero Jack Ryan (beginning with 1990’s The Hunt for Red October) may be mildly interested in this backstory for a secondary character who appears in just two of those movies.
But even they are likely to be disappointed by the well-worn patriotic-soldier-betrayed plot and the pervasive tediousness of a movie where even a sequence featuring a plane being shot down by a missile, crash-landing in the sea, capsizing, and filling with water manages to be dull.
Any hope that something of interest might emerge from the 109-minute runtime is extinguished by the extremely dim lighting of so many scenes (a serious misjudgement at a time when most people are watching films on the TV or tablets, often in a well-illuminated room). Some effective camerawork and a couple of watchable performances in secondary roles are the only merits that Without Remorse has, and they’re not nearly enough.
The movie opens in Aleppo, Syria (looking rather like a video game) with a group of US Navy SEALs commanded by Senior Chief John Kelly (Michael B. Jordan) embarking on an operation against ISIS, but discovering their opponents are in fact Russians. During their flight back to base, Kelly accuses CIA officer Robert Ritter (Jamie Bell) of having known of the Russian involvement and concealing it.
At home in the US, Kelly helps some kids with a game of chess to demonstrate that he’s intelligent and sensitive as well as macho, then returns to more familiar territory by killing some Russians who invade his house and murder his wife (apparently mistaking her for him). It emerges that the Russians have been picking off the SEAL team members one by one in retaliation for the Aleppo incident.
Kelly kills a Russian diplomat just to keep his hand in (“wherever you go, death will follow”, he’s told at one point and the movie takes this prediction rather literally). He goes to prison for the crime but then comes out almost immediately in order to lead a covert expedition to Murmansk in northern Russia. Ordered to apprehend the one Russian assassin who managed to escape from his home, Kelly tries to kill him anyway.
He and his team then kill quite a few other Russians before returning to the US, where Kelly kills one last person and disappears with a new identity: John Clark, the character who also appears in Clear and Present Danger (1994) and The Sum of All Fears (2002), played by Willem Dafoe and Liev Schreiber respectively.
It’s pretty standard action-adventure plotting, underpinned by the usual conspiracy in which devious Washington D.C civilians callously use brave, loyal military men to further their political ends (“it was a setup from the beginning”, a character helpfully announces, as if it could ever have been anything else in this kind of film). The shape that this particular trope takes in Without Remorse is at least plausible, and it’s refreshingly surprising to find that one obvious baddie turns out to be a goodie after all, but the problem with the storyline is that it’s so pared-down it simply fails to be interesting.
We know Kelly will survive, since this movie is filling in the background to his later adventures. Most of the other characters are little more than outlines, so we don’t care much whether they live or die; only Ritter and Lieutenant Commander Karen Greer (Jodie Turner-Smith) are developed enough to arouse any interest, and even they’re not given enough screen time that we really feel we know them.
There’s not much in the way of mystery, either. So the movie becomes a series of scenes in which we have no investment, leading to a preordained ending. The screenplay doesn’t help much, sometimes seeming like writers Taylor Sheridan and Will Staples are actively trying to cram in as many clichés as they can: “We fought for what America could be but they crossed a line, they brought their war into my house. They’re gonna play by my rules now.”
An attempt to give the film some gravitas with a repeated chess metaphor falters, too, thanks to lines like “pawns could never kill a king” (nonsensical on two fronts: no chess piece can “kill” a king, since kings aren’t taken and removed from the board like other pieces; but pawns certainly can checkmate a king, the closest equivalent).
On the plus side, there are decent performances from Bell (colder than he usually is) and from Turner-Smith, who brings to her role an assured stillness rather reminiscent of Lance Reddick. By contrast, Jordan—though his acting is not bad—is so angry all the time that he starts to give the impression of being petulant rather than tormented by loss.
There’s some accomplished and dramatic photography by Philippe Rousselot—including an imaginative chiaroscuro effect created by a torch rolling on the floor—although dream/hallucination sequences are rather kitsch and far too much of the film is lost in the murky verdigris grading apparently favoured by director Stefano Sollima. His previous credits include the over-rated Sicario 2: Soldado (2018), which like Without Remorse was a film largely interested in hardware and killing, and not too concerned with people.
There are audiences for that kind of movie, of course, so it would be unfair to damn Without Remorse solely on that basis. Still, they can be done well, and Without Remorse isn’t an example of that. Even an action movie needs to be more than just action, but this one has little real plot in the sense of unanswered questions that the audience really wants answered, and very little tension. Lots of stuff happens, in a literal sense, but there is no reason to be especially interested in it.
By the time we reach the long, dull gunfight in the gloom that passes for a climax the problem is painfully clear: Without Remorse is plain boring, and that’s a cardinal sin in any genre.
USA | 2021 | 109 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Cast & Crew
director: Stefano Sollima.
writers: Taylor Sheridan & Will Staples (based on the novel by Tom Clancy).
starring: Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Bell, Jodie Turner-Smith, Luke Mitchell, Jack Kesy, Brett Gelman, Lauren London, Colman Domingo & Guy Pearce.