The Tom Clancy franchise, at least in terms of feature films, has been a defining example of how Hollywood often mistakes a strong package for mere interest in the IP. The Hunt For Red October was a straight adaptation of an exceptionally popular novel which also featured Sean Connery in a commanding lead role. Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger both boasted the core appeal of Harrison Ford in a big-budget, real-world action movie back when he mostly avoided fisticuffs outside of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies. Those films, big hits in their day, were successful not because “Moviegoers love Jack Ryan!” but because of the specific variables, including mostly positive reviews, that made each film inherently appealing in a time when the movie star was more important than the IP.
That’s part of why Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit stumbled in 2014, because Jack Ryan himself wasn’t a draw and Chris Pine wasn’t a draw outside of Star Trek. All of this is to say that, had it opened theatrically as planned, Paramount’s Without Remorse might have had a chance in hell at breaking out. Why? Because, relatively speaking, Michael B. Jordan is a rare example of a rising star who wasn’t necessarily thrusted upon the world as a deeply well-known marquee character. You knew Thor before you knew Chris Hemsworth, but quite a few folks had an inkling as to who Michael B. Jordan was before he played Adonis Creed and/or Killmonger. The draw of Without Remorse is less “see the origins of John Clark” and more “Michael B. Jordan as an R-rated action hero.”
That’s also more or less all Stephen Sollima’s Without Remorse has to offer. Penned by Taylor Sheridan and Will Staples, the film is loosely based on Tom Clancy’s 1993 novel, which to be fair was also an origin story about how Nave SEAL John Kelly (Jordan) changed his name to John Clark. Heck, some of the material from the book, concerning a wounded Kelly being nursed back to health by the woman who would become his wife, was lifted for Kenneth Branagh’s Shadow Recruit. This plot, understandably streamlined, offers up the home invasion murder of Kelly’s pregnant wife as his “man on fire” motivation, which oddly enough is the same hook that motivated Tyler Perry’s Alex Cross in the 2012 Rob Cohen-directed reboot. While Kelly is badly wounded in the assault, he proves… hard to kill.
Yes, while the film is fashioned as a return to the techno-action/real-world polish of a pre-Harry Potter/Pirates of the Caribbean/Spider-Man era, the core story is straight out of an early-1990’s street-level action flick. Once Kelly’s wife is in the ground, John proves himself hard to kill and out for justice, seeing himself as above the law and willing to enter dark territory as a proverbial (and in one early scene, literal) man on fire. The core hook, and really the only element that qualifies as “entertainment value,” is watching Michael B. Jordan unleash hell on his adversaries. To be fair, the action is efficient and brutal, albeit oddly bloodless in a way that suggests that Paramount was initially gunning for a PG-13. The plot is one you’ve seen countless times, and the actors struggle to sell it.
That’s no shade on the likes of Jodie Turner-Smith, Jamie Bell and Guy Pearce, all of whom have proven their worth elsewhere, but the dialogue scenes have a strange half-hearted nature to them, as if they know that we know where this is going and they don’t even try to make us care. That may seem nominal, but a good action movie should be as engaging (think the delicious computer hacking face-off between Harrison Ford and Henry Czerny in Clear and Present Danger) as the action beats. One reason so many 90’s era blockbusters hold up is that Hollywood was at just the place where they could present big-scale spectacle but couldn’t afford to have non-stop action. The likes of Face/Off, Speed and GoldenEye had to make sure the characters and the plotting provided equal entertainment value.
In Without Remorse I see a potential pitfall in terms of Hollywood’s alleged desire for inclusivity. Like Raya and the Last Dragon, Without Remorse is a movie you’ve seen countless times but now with a demographically-specific actor/character. A Black action hero shouldn’t be novel for those who grew up with Will Smith, Denzel Washington and Wesley Snipes, but the hook is akin to the various Will Packer-produced thrillers (No Good Deed, Breaking In, etc.) and comedies (Little, What Men Want, Ride Along, etc.). Without Remorse is essentially “those movies you loved from a prior generation, but with a more inclusive core cast.” However, you need more than just a glorified race/gender swap, which is what makes Deon Taylor’s recent of-the-moment potboilers (Black and Blue, The Intruder) comparatively engrossing. Otherwise, diversity is just an alibi for arbitrary IP recycling.
On the plus side, unlike Sicario: Day of the Soldado, American Assassin, Peppermint or the recent Jack Ryan episodic, Without Remorse mostly avoids demographically-specific fear mongering. No spoilers, but the bad guys are not and are never presented as scary dark-skinned foreigners. Sure, you still have, like Denzel Washington’s last two Equalizer movies, a Black action hero plowing through conventional due process norms and civil liberties in a way that would likely be tagged as “problematic” if it were a white guy shooting it up on foreign soil, but that’s been an insidious Hollywood trope at least since Bad Boys 2. More concerning, in terms of the movie itself, is that Jordan is essentially a walking action figure, with little personality, nuance or depth beyond what the actor implicitly offers off-script. Absent Jordan’s charisma, there’d be nothing there.
As a casual “sit on the couch and press play” Amazon Prime offering, Without Remorse (just barely) qualifies as surface-level entertainment. It feels like an approximation of its cinematic ancestors, one weirdly smaller in scope and ambition than its peers even as it was clearly envisioned to launch a cinematic franchise. The action is mostly well-staged and coherent, even if frankly most of the best beats occur in the first act, leaving the bigger-scale but less creative set-pieces for the second half. As Tom Clancy origin stories go, it’s less aggressively dumb than Shadow Recruit but can’t hold a candle to The Sum of All Fears. Outside of the action, the only element that justifies even a casual watch is Michael B. Jordan giving a movie star performance in a movie deeply unworthy of his talents.