‘Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse’: Michael B. Jordan Skillfully Outruns the Plot With Action-Packed Adrenaline

As the age of franchise-building continues, “Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse” is one great-looking franchise-starter, and feels like it all the way through. Impeccably filmed, strongly performed, and convincingly staged in terms of its action sequences, the story is nonetheless all a prologue. In a way it makes sense considering it is based on a typically testosterone-pumped bestseller by the late Tom Clancy, where he provided a backstory to an enigmatic character first introduced earlier in his Jack Ryan series. Readers of the book will hardly recognize the plot in this movie version however, which fully updates the premise for the present. One constant is that Russians still get tagged as the villains.

Michael B. Jordan is John Kelley, a Navy SEAL with naturally over-the-top skills. During a mission in Aleppo, Syria, Kelley comes to know snarky CIA official Robert Ritter (Jamie Bell). Ritter puts Kelley under the impression they are carrying out a raid on Syrian regime forces to save a kidnapped American, but it turns out their targets are Russians running weapons in the city. An ensuing battle results with lots of dead Russians. Left angry by the incident, Kelley decides it’s time to quit the army and move into private security. He also has a pregnant wife, Pam (Lauren London). When Russian assassins come prowling Washington, D.C., for revenge, they kill several SEALs involved in the Aleppo mission and target Kelley, killing his wife and unborn child. Kelley is left seriously injured and one Russian gets away. As he recovers, Kelley is shocked to discover the CIA considers the score evened out, and decides to go on his own mission of revenge.

“Without Remorse” on one level can be placed alongside the recent trend in revenge thrillers, where a well-known star plays the family man who has to get payback. Because it’s “based” on a Tom Clancy novel it pretends to mix in geopolitics like the Syrian civil war and our renewed paranoia about Russia, but only up to a point. This film marks a considerable departure from the previous films in the Clancy canon, which mostly featured CIA man Jack Ryan, who has been played over the years by Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck, Chris Pine and on an Amazon series by John Krasinski. Clancy was a staunch Republican who worshipped Ronald Reagan and always made sure American exceptionalism shined through in his stories, even when Ryan had to expose corruption or traitors. The novels and subsequent movies were macho patriotic hymns for viewers who thought James Bond was unrealistic. “Without Remorse” is darker and slightly more paranoid. It’s a total reboot in a sense. Jordan is playing a character first played by Willem Dafoe in 1994’s adaptation of “Clear and Present Danger,” who was an enigmatic presence specializing in covert activities. Jordan updates Kelley into a pumped up action hero who could brawl with his boxer from the “Creed” movies.

Jordan is also working as a producer while directing duties go to Stefano Sollima, whose previous credits include “Sicario: Day of the Soldado.” The screenplay is by Taylor Sheridan and Will Staples. They all eschew the Clancy style of brainy narrative, where instead of action, suspense generates from detailed imaginings of intrigue inside CIA offices and military chains of command. Sollima directs with kinetic energy that never slows down for a detailed conversation about anything. Jordan follows the path trailed by Liam Neeson in “Taken,” getting off the hospital bed and flexing his skills to mow down his targets. As an action piece the movie will certainly deliver on that level. Jordan goes to prison after crossing a red line and is soon taking down an entire SWAT team inside a crammed cell. He can hold his breath underwater for inhuman amounts of time and single-handedly outgun a Russian diplomat’s security team. Turn off logic and it can be old-fashioned fun to watch Jordan get information out of a perplexed Russian, then douse his car with gasoline and set it alight, all while a crowd of airport denizens watch. The movie barely has time to deliver a worthy twist, with a big turning point happening when Jordan tracks down a Russian to an apartment, the man says one cryptic line and that’s it, the entire plot suddenly unspools. 

As he showed in the “Creed” films and “Black Panther,” Michael B. Jordan is a natural action star with great charisma. He gives Kelley intelligence combined with the clench-jawed stares these kinds of films always demand. Yet “Without Remorse” puts its character development on the backburner to make way for primarily the action and franchise foundations. Guy Pearce as Clay, the Secretary of Defense, is convincing but has the dimensions of a quick plot tool. The writing gives away his true nature all too quickly. More than half the movie is devoted to one single shootout in a blown out apartment complex, and the entire reasoning behind why Kelley’s wife was killed is blurted out in one quick car ride. It’s all efficiently filmed and far from boring for action fans, but as a story it can feel more like the first episode of a longer TV season. Alas that is the whole point. “Without Remorse” finds inspiration in a trend made popular by Marvel, where mid-end credits we get a bonus scene setting the stage for the next chapter. Two characters stand before the Washington Memorial and reveal plans fans of Clancy’s “Rainbow Six” books and video games will instantly recognize. 

“Without Remorse” thus functions as a half-blockbuster and half-opening chapter. It is premiering on Amazon Prime, which is a perfect platform for a film that has more of an episodic feel to it. There are positives to the movie when it comes to the skill involved. Michael B. Jordan now proves he can carry the screen while working behind the scenes to make something on par with films like “The Peacemaker.” Jodie Turner-Smith as Kelley’s comrade-in-arms Karen Greer looks plucked out of a ‘80s thriller. As a director Sollima successfully combines his taste for dark style with a slick espionage adrenaline fest. All that is missing is a fuller, richer story to go along with the whole enterprise. Whatever his political leanings, Tom Clancy could spin quite the yarn, mixing Northern Ireland violence, Colombian cartel intrigue and nuclear terrorism into momentarily believable plots. “Without Remorse” is fine as a momentary escape, but the next adventure needs to open a thicker file.

Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse” begins streaming April 30 on Amazon Prime Video.