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Michael B. Jordan Is a Living Weapon in Clancy Adaptation

If you’re a fan of the ‘Jack Ryan’ world of military intrigue and espionage, you’ll probably go for the latest Clancy adaptation.


You probably know if you’re a fan of Tom Clancy’s stuff or not. The late author built a career out of Reagan-era fears combated by strong men who made smart choices working for the government. Hollywood has followed Clancy for decades starting back to 1990’s The Hunt for Red October and as recently as the Amazon series Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan. As the world has changed, so has fidelity to Clancy’s plotting, which is how you get Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse as a pretty loose adaptation of the 1993 novel of the same name. And yet Stefano Sollima’s movie feels like a pretty typical Clancy movie full of special forces bad-asses doing military operations surrounded by intrigue with the fate of global stability on the line. Without Remorse doesn’t look to break the mold, but it’s a serviceable action-thriller that scratches the itch for this action movie sub-genre.

The film opens with US Navy SEALs led by Senior Chief John Kelly (Michael B. Jordan) executing a rescue mission in Syria, but there they discover that their enemies aren’t terrorists but Russian military. Their CIA counterpart Robert Ritter (Jamie Bell) shrugs it off, but when the soldiers come home they start getting bumped off. They come for Kelly and end up killing his pregnant wife, but he fights off the attackers and survives. Looking for revenge and with the help of his team member Lieutenant Commander Karen Greer, he (Jodie Turner-Smith) begins to track down those responsible but gets drawn into a web of international intrigue where it looks like the Russians are aiming to start a war with America. Fueled by vengeance, Kelly joins up with a special forces team that hopes to stop a coming war by finding out who was responsible for the death of Kelly’s wife.

Michael B. Jordan as John Kelly in Without Remorse

Photo: Nadja Klier © 2020 Paramount Pictures

Without Remorse tilts towards being a John Wick-style thriller, but it’s not really that movie, and it seems like the screenwriters realized that by the second act. You’d be forgiven if you thought the film would go down that path as Kelly suffers a serious trauma and is a trained killer with apparently bottomless resources (at one point he is able to somehow procure a tow truck, which he then uses to ram a diplomat’s car), but Without Remorse is not about a solo mission because that’s not really the Clancy style. A Clancy narrative tends to have a lot of moving parts with a hero discovering what’s going on as the story progresses. You can’t really celebrate the special forces if Kelly is going rogue and doing his own thing, so the film tries to split the difference by having Kelly go rogue in the first half before joining up with a special forces team in the second half.

This odd structure leaves the Kelly character a bit adrift. On the one hand, he’s a bad-ass, and it’s very easy to buy Jordan as a bad-ass. However, the character is far too basic for an actor of Jordan’s talent, and it’s a bit disappointing to take such a talented actor and deprive him of any motivation beyond revenge and grief. I suppose it’s nice that Jordan gets an action hero to call his own, but as an origin story (Clancy fans know what’s coming for Kelly and how he connects to future works in the “Ryan-verse”) Without Remorse is fairly weak since Kelly has a mission but not a character arc. The film basically exists for Jordan to do cool tactical special forces stuff, and if that’s all you want from this movie, you’ll likely be satisfied. But for those who love Jordan’s range, Without Remorse never offers much of an acting challenge.

Jodie Turner-Smith and Michael B. Jordan in Without Remorse

Photo: Nadja Klier © 2020 Paramount Pictures

There’s also the Tom Clancy of it all with its unquestioning military celebration, and although it’s to the film’s credit that it at least raises the question of what it means for Black soldiers to fight for this country, Without Remorse is far more comfortable just letting the military be cool and then casting side-eye towards the CIA and government bureaucrats. It’s that the kind of odd paradox of cheering the military industrial complex while also condemning the machinery that keeps it running. The Clancy adaptations are typically a tightrope where you never want to be too jingoistic while also ultimately approving the supremacy of the U.S. military as a force for global order, and Without Remorse is of a piece with those stories. It may start from the place of a revenge-thriller, but its heart lies in the power of the U.S. military.

That kind of story isn’t really for me, but I understand the appeal, and Without Remorse tells it fairly well. Considering that the Jack Ryan series is already headed towards its third season, there’s clearly an audience for what Clancy created, and I imagine those fans will be satisfied by Sollima’s adaptation and even happier at what gets teased during the mid-credits scene.

Rating: C+

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