The cinematic history of Tom Clancy’s novels has been pretty mixed. While the first film, The Hunt For Red October, was an excellent political drama with little action, the subsequent films started to progress more into the typical Hollywood mold of including big actors and lots of gunfights to entice the average viewer. I have a soft spot for Patriot Games, but these films never quite captured the intrigue and suspense of their source material.
Eventually, these efforts would result in the dreadful The Sum of All Fears, which killed Tom Clancy adaptations for a decade. Flash forward to the 2010s and film studios were eager to capitalize on Clancy’s name again. With the author passing away in 2013, the 2014 release of Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit couldn’t have been timed better. Sadly, that failed to meet expectations and the future of the series was left in question.
That’s where Amazon comes in. After finding relative success with its Jack Ryan series, it is tackling full-on adaptations of Clancy’s John Clark novels with the hope of bringing Rainbow Six to film. To get there, we need to first cross the bridge that is Without Remorse. Having thought on this for days, I’m still at a loss for words on how to truly describe this.
Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse
Director: Stefano Sollima
Release Date: April 30, 2021 (Amazon Prime)
Without Remorse opens with a team of Navy SEAL operatives infiltrating a hidden base in Syria under the pretense of saving a CIA agent. Led by the esteemed Senior Chief John Kelly (Michael B. Jordan), the team soon learns that the encampment isn’t filled with Syrians, but Russians, and things so sideways. Barely escaping with their lives, Kelly and his team start to question their role in this atrocity and how they’ve been deceived by their government.
Flash forward a few months and Russia isn’t too happy about the United States getting involved in its business. After tracking down Kelly’s team, they proceed to start killing each member and work their way up to Kelly’s home. With the film briefly establishing that Kelly is an expecting father with a lovely wife, I’m pretty sure you know what happens next. The Russians fail at offing him, but end up stealing his wife and unborn child from him. Now, Kelly is a broken man and wants answers, answers that the US government isn’t keen to provide him. It’s an incredibly basic revenge plot set against the backdrop of political intrigue that never moves much beyond that setup.
Since Kelly is so willing to get revenge, he wrangles his way onto a new mission to infiltrate Russia and stop a nationalist named Victor Rykov (Brett Gelman). Rykov wants to overthrow the US as if the Cold War never ended and Kelly simply wants to see the man suffer, so it’s a match made in heaven for the military. I’m skipping some details here, but that’s really the gist of the plot. Man loses family, decides he wants to burn the world, then stumbles into a conspiracy plot.
I can’t knock the story too much as even the original novel had something of a mixed reception. The writers also did a pretty decent job of updating some of Kelly’s backstory for modern times, but it’s often hard to figure out when this film is supposed to be taking place. There are elevated tensions between the US and Russia that don’t initially make sense and a “surprise” twist at the end muddies the waters even more. For all intents and purposes, the writing never quite works in establishing its characters and their motivations are just or interesting.
Let’s take the casting, for instance. Longtime fans of Clancy’s work will probably be confused why Michael B. Jordan is playing John Kelly. While race has never been central to his character, Kelly (who would later become known as John Clark) has historically been a white man. I initially figured casting Jordan was a way to bring some new backstory into the role and give it a different vibe from simply being a revenge story. There’s even a bit of dialogue in the beginning that hints at racial discrimination within the US government as Kelly says, “We served a country that didn’t love us back.” Turns out I was giving the film too much credit.
It’s fine to write basic characters, but with so little development happening over the course of the movie, it simply feels like a missed opportunity to not do something with Jordan’s presence. He’s just here for name recognition, which is odd as he’s the only big-name star in the film. Other actors are certainly not unknown faces, but they don’t carry the same weight as Killmonger.
All of that said, it’s not like the performances here are bad. Jordan does a pretty bang-up job as Kelly and is able to handle the transition from being an honest family man to a ruthless killer. He shines in the action sequences with a determined stare and can become downright terrifying when questioning his teammates. Jordan’s co-stars are also fine if a bit basic. It’s really the writing that lets everything down.
As with pretty much every Tom Clancy film or book, the Cold War is still a lingering threat and America just can’t get over it. It’s a plotline that has well since overstayed its welcome and not much is done to update that plot for a contemporary setting. We get some kind of throwaway explanation for America not having a real enemy, but it feels like a half-baked way to tie Without Remorse into modern-day politics.
A lot of this could be forgiven if the film had standout action moments, but even that is mostly a wash. I’ll give credit to director Stefano Sollima for at least coming up with a few creative scenarios, but the majority of this film takes place in barely lit locales that make for some utterly confusing gunfights. The intro to the film had the perfect opportunity to be shot in night vision but instead is rendered nearly unseeable by its poor color grading. It doesn’t help that muzzle flashes oversaturate the picture, making it harder still to focus once your eyes are blinded.
The standout moment is during the middle of the film when Kelly and his crew’s plane gets shot down. The sequence is filmed with a mostly still camera that makes the resulting crash uncomfortable and horrific. It’s still too dimly lit, but the vibe is that of claustrophobia and it works brilliantly. There’s a real sense of dread that permeates the action here.
It’s just too bad that everything else is either rushed or predictable as all hell. For a film clocking in at nearly two hours, I left feeling like I missed something. The brief origin story and convoluted twists and turns rob Without Remorse of any proper pacing, making sequences feel like they were dropped in at random. It’s not a difficult plot to figure out in any fashion, but it also doesn’t feel like a complete story.
Maybe that’s because of Amazon’s plans for Rainbow Six, which is teased at the end of this film with a mid-credits sequence. I know the only reason I was even interested in Without Remorse was to see how these writers would build up to Clancy’s most well-known property. With that particular brand still going strong on the gaming front, could a new film help establish some of its characters for a younger audience?
I don’t have much of an answer to that question. In fact, I don’t even know how to summarize this review. I didn’t go into Without Remorse expecting a masterpiece, but I thought it would at least rise above some very generic spy thriller cliches. Instead, the end result is a mostly forgettable and entirely unharmful film that doesn’t take any risks. It’s great that Amazon wants to create a new franchise based on the novels of a popular author, but it really should be focusing on these films as individual projects instead of attempting to go the route of Marvel.
Essentially, I don’t think the Tom Clancy cinematic universe is going to get past this initial film. Jordan is already signed on for Rainbow Six and the film had a strong opening weekend debut, but most people are likely to walk away from Without Remorse wondering what the buzz was for. Without an adequate explanation for them, I simply don’t foresee a future where more John Clark is a thing.