Without Remorse

Without Remorse Is Boring

Dept. of Failed Adaptations


There is one great moment in Without Remorse. A fantastic set piece in which a passenger plane crash segues into a suffocating underwater sequence that plays out over some tremendously long takes. It’s exciting. It’s thrilling. It’s about four minutes (give or take) in an otherwise paint-by-numbers action thriller that all but squanders the charm of it’s lead.

The nicest thing I can say about Without Remorse is that it’s boring.

Here, the plot of Tom Clancy’s novel has been boiled down to its most fundamental building blocks. An operative with a special set of skills. A dead pregnant wife. A shifty CIA agent. Dodgy Russians. Self-serving politicians. Mutually assured destruction. Alas, writers Taylor Sheridan and Will Staples do nothing more with it, giving us instead a shell of a geopolitical action thriller with neither the scope nor the scale of the source material. Without Remorse, the movie, takes Without Remorse, the book, and employs a reductionist narrative technique that makes it all but indistinguishable from something like American Assassin. It’s basic.

Kelly Before Clark

Without Remorse

Without Remorse is essentially the origin story of John Clark (previously played by Willem Dafoe in Clear and Present Danger and Liev Schreiber in The Sum of All Fears), and yet another attempt by Hollywood to kickstart a Clancyverse. (Amazon Prime’s own Jack Ryan series is actually a step in the right direction but, due to rights issues, has no connection to this effort by Paramount Pictures.)

Michael B. Jordan plays John Kelly, a navy SEAL who survives an assassination attempt by Russian special forces, but loses his wife and unborn daughter when they attack his home. This sends Kelly on a globe-trotting revenge spiral to seek out and destroy the people responsible for killing his family. This takes him from Charlotte, Atlanta, and Washington, across the world to Germany and Russia, hunting down the bad guys while also being the unwitting participant in a bigger conspiracy that doesn’t quite make a lot of sense.

Watching this movie I couldn’t tell if Kelly is a man with truly exceptional skills or just someone who is crazy enough to do what no one else will. Maybe he’s a combination of both those things, but besides having a dead wife and baby we aren’t quite sure what his motivations are.

Now don’t get me wrong, revenge porn is always entertaining to watch, it just isn’t what transforms John Kelly into John Clark.

And… Action!

Without Remorse

Without Remorse doesn’t just fall short as an adaptation, but also as an action movie. Director Stefano Sollima (Sicario: Day of the Soldado) may have been going for gritty, but everything here just comes off as dark and shabby. Barring that plane crash, none of the other action sequences have a story to them, causing the movie to lack any sense of tension or urgency.

An action sequence needs to have a narrative arc. The best ones always do. Think about movies like John Wick or Extraction, where we’re with our protagonist every step of the way, watching his thought process as he contemplates and calculates his way out of every tricky situation. Every set piece in those movies contain the core elements of plot in microcosm – introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. In Without Remorse, we are completely at a loss as to why John Kelly makes the choices he does. Why did he attack that Russian diplomat in such a public manner? Was his plan always to get arrested and imprisoned? How was he going to avenge his wife’s death if he was stuck in jail? Did he even have a plan?

That last question in particular plagues almost every aspect of this movie.

Ask Not…

Without Remorse

The biggest problem here, however, is in how the movie presents John Kelly. Race swapping the character means having to address all of the baggage that comes with being Black in America. It should have added layers of complexity to this story. It should have provided a fascinating avenue by which to update this story for today. Instead, we’re left with a lazy holdover from a 90s movie.

It’s 2021, is there a single Black person in America who doesn’t think that they’re living in a rigged system? So why then is John Kelly even remotely shocked that his country would betray him in the way that it did? Why is this a sudden revelation to him? Did he fall asleep and miss Killmonger’s speech at the end of Black Panther?

Couple that with the decision for Michael B. Jordan to just mumble his way through the movie and what you’re left with is a perfect storm of bad decisions.

Wither Clancyverse?

Tom Clancy’s novels never had the pretense of being literature. They were commercial artifacts, with plots that were ripped from the headlines, characters who were tortured patriots, and a barrage of technical detail that gave them a quasi-documentary feel. They were a genius blend of fact and fiction, of realism and make-believe, with just enough action, adventure, and wish fulfillment to keep things exciting. Much like his fellow bestselling author Michael Crichton, Clancy’s books were tailor-made for adaptation. They were written as blueprints for the screen.

So why does Hollywood keep stumbling in adapting his work?

In some ways it’s because they can’t see the forrest for the trees. Clancy’s novels may have been these complex, jargon-filled, techno-thrillers, but their appeal was always in the way he drew his characters. The reason that The Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games, and Clear and Present Danger worked so well was because they were built around the noble and brilliant Jack Ryan and his unwavering moral compass. Character was core to those movies, just as they were in the books. And it’s something that is altogether missing here.

The idea of a Black man, a patriot, a grieving widower, who needs to come to terms with his place in America should really have made for quite the powerful movie.

Without Remorse reminded me in many ways of the premature abortion that was Universal’s Monsterverse. Much like The Mummy, Without Remorse was crafted with the burden of kickstarting some kind of shared universe. So much so that it wasn’t really allowed to tell its own story. The consequence being a mishmash of a movie that feels rushed, lacks real character growth and development, and doesn’t quite stand up on its own. A fact made abundantly clear by an egregious mid-credits tag that flies in the face of everything that has happened to John Kelly in this movie.

I guess we’re never getting that Rainbow Six movie now.

Without Remorse is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

Uma has been reviewing things for most of his life: movies, television shows, books, video games, his mum's cooking, Bahir's fashion sense. He is a firm believer that the answer to most questions can be found within the cinematic canon. In fact, most of what he knows about life he learned from Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. He still hasn't forgiven Christopher Nolan for the travesties that are Interstellar and The Dark Knight Rises.

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