“He is more dangerous and effective than any man we have in the field.” – Typical action-movie cliché line from “Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse.”
The Amazon Prime Video original movie “Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse” has to be considered one of the more disappointing films of 2021 so far, given the long and rich history of entertaining adaptations of Clancy’s work and the vibrant star power of its leading man. Michael B. Jordan has plenty of opportunities to fire off weapons and flex his muscles here but delivers a surprisingly flat and underwhelming performance playing the kind of action antihero perfected by the likes of Denzel Washington, Bruce Willis, Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Angelina Jolie, Liam Neeson, The Rock, Charlize Theron and – we could go on forever. You know, the kind of guy or gal who often starts out as a cop or a soldier but becomes disillusioned with the system after a betrayal and goes ROGUE and OFF THE GRID.
That’s exactly the kind of cliché, er, character, Jordan portrays here. We have seen John Kelly as a supporting player in previous film adaptations of Clancy books (Willem Dafoe played him in “Clear and Present Danger” in 1994, and Liev Schreiber in “The Sum of All Fears” in 2002), but now he is front and center in an origins story as the senior chief of an elite team of Navy SEALs sent into Syria to extract a CIA agent ostensibly being held captive by the Syrian army. The ensuing rescue mission/shootout is indicative of many of the impressively choreographed but murky action sequences that permeate “Without Remorse,” where there’s lots of shouting and shooting and explosions and carnage, but it’s often difficult to keep up with the proceedings as we squint through the dust and darkness. One assumes the intention was to replicate the true chaos inherent in such situations, but that doesn’t necessarily make for clearly defined cinema.
We know there’s a problem with this mission from the get-go because it’s telegraphed via the duplicitous and smarmy CIA operative Robert Ritter (the chameleonic Jamie Bell, excellent as always), who smirks and calls John “sweetheart” and brushes off his concerns, even after it’s determined the bad guys aren’t soldiers, they’re ex-Russian military turned mercenaries, and they don’t play by any established rules of war. Nevertheless, the mission is a qualified success, with John and his colleagues gunning down numerous anonymous henchmen.
Cut to a few months later, with John and his eight-months-pregnant wife, Pam (Lauren London), hosting a cookout at their Washington, D.C.-area home, which is a REALLY nice spread and looks more like something a wealthy senator might own. All is well and peaceful; in fact, John is retiring from the SEALs to take a lucrative and relatively safe gig doing private security. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, John could be chilling on the sofa later that night, listening to his favorite jams on his noise-canceling headphones, so he’s late to spring into action when Russian assassins get their revenge for that Syrian mission by gunning down his wife and unborn child and seriously wounding John before he kills most of them. (One gets away.) As John puts it later, in one of the many, many lines that will ring familiar with fans of this genre: “They took everything from me!” Also: “Now we’re going to play by my rules!”
And off we go on our path of vengeance. After a brief period of mourning, John sets out on a mission to find out what’s really going on and to gain his revenge on anyone connected with the massacre in his home. For a time, “Without Remorse” becomes a prison picture, and not a very good one, as John fends off a myriad of corrupt guards with orders to kill him. And then he’s recruited by his longtime friend and former SEAL supervisor Karen Greer (Jodie Turner-Smith) and the aforementioned CIA operative Ritter to lead ANOTHER dangerous mission, this time to Russia. Despite John’s frequent observation he’s just a pawn in a larger chess game (there’s even an early foreshadowing scene involving an actual game of chess), he agrees to take the gig, which might just help to uncover a conspiracy to start a war between the United States and Russia. (It’s complicated. And convoluted.)
Based on the 1993 novel of the same name (with many updates and revisions) and directed by Stefano Sollima (“Sicario: Day of the Soldado”), “Without Remorse” was filmed largely in the legendary Babelsberg Film Studios just outside Berlin, and while you can see ample evidence of the preparation and the attention to detail and the large-scale ambition on screen, it never quite jells into an involving character study or a fresh action tale. Jordan’s line readings reflect the by-the-book nature of the story, and when the main villain is finally revealed, it’s hardly a surprise – and his demise is borderline ridiculous.
Halfway through the end credits, there’s a scene setting up further adventures. Even this Easter egg is overwrought, as two characters stand side-by-side in the night, gazing at the Washington Monument and setting up the sequel. Here’s hoping when that happens, John is given a better vehicle to drive.