I had a feeling somewhere midway through “Without Remorse,” the new Tom Clancy-based action movie from director Stefano Sollima, that I hoped the film would break me out of by its end. The longer it went on, though, through slickly directed action set pieces and a solid performance from its leading man, the longer the feeling persisted, and it still lingers even now.
The feeling was: Somebody should have made this 25 years ago.
There’s nothing wrong with much of the craft applied to “Without Remorse,” which stars Michael B. Jordan as Clancy fan-favorite John Kelly and is very loosely adapted from the 1993 novel of the same name. Everyone involved is putting in the work, the action is solid, and Jordan himself remains a star with major presence who can dominate a scene both physically and emotionally. There’s also nothing wrong with action movie throwbacks, as modern classics like the “John Wick” series have proven over and over again. The trick is to have something new to say, whether you’re saying it thematically or stylistically, and that’s the real problem with this serviceable but forgettable military action drama. It’s mostly saying things Cold War thrillers of the ‘80s and Clancy’s own espionage hits of the ‘90s already said, and it’s not saying them as well.
Though Clancy’s own version of “Without Remorse” was itself a throwback to the Vietnam era, the film – written by Taylor Sheridan and Will Staples and intended to launch a new franchise for Jordan – moves things to modern Syria, where John Kelly is serving as a Navy SEAL conducting a rescue mission on the strength of the intel of a CIA Agent (Jamie Bell) who isn’t telling the unit the whole truth. When his latest mission turns out to have deadly consequences back home, Kelly finds himself caught in a web of deception that might extend to the highest levels of government, and might mean that he can never go back to the life he once knew.
There are, essentially, two stories unfolding through “Without Remorse,” a straightforward revenge tale existing side-by-side with a high-octane espionage story involving Russian agents, U.S. secrets, and government officials who want to use soldiers as pawns in a larger game. It’s this latter story, particularly the idea of pawns and how they’re played across the larger game board, that holds the most potential for the film, but every time it seems to veer off in that direction, the more straightforward revenge tale hovers back into place and obscures the meatier espionage bits. And then, just as the real emotional beats of the revenge story are taking over, the espionage narrative rears its head again. The film is eager to play with some very potent ingredients, but the balance of the recipe never feels quite right, which means that both flavors suffer.
That’s not say that nothing works in the film, of course. Jordan, who’s made himself into a formidable acting presence capable of injecting pathos into even the stalest of blockbuster cliches, still manages to command the movie even if they emotional weight he’s carrying is often quite uneven. He’s a movie star, and it feels like we’re watching a movie star work even if the dialogue is a bit rote and the big story beats are a bit mechanical. His presence here adds depth to everything, including Sollima’s action scenes, which are directed with clarity and competence but no real flash apart from the occasional moment of clever detail work.
Sadly, Jordan’s work alone is not enough to save “Without Remorse” from mediocrity. It’s a film that might have felt right at home in the action movie boom of the early ‘90s, at the time that Clancy wrote his novel, and it’s possible that keeping the Vietnam era machinations of the original book would have helped it along with a 2020s audience. As it is, though, the film feels like something not reinvented, but simply recycled from a bygone era, made more with muscle memory than heart. The action movie faithful can still find something to love here, but I can only hope that the planned sequel will give Jordan more room to really sell the character.
‘Without Remorse’ is streaming on Amazon Prime Video April 30.