Back in the 1990s, the movies adapted from Tom Clancy’s books used to be events. His frequent protagonist Jack Ryan nearly spawned an American James Bond franchise: Alec Baldwin played the CIA agent in the 1990 Cold War submarine thriller The Hunt for Red October, and Harrison Ford further burnished Ryan’s blockbuster bonafides when he took over in 1992’s Patriot Games and 1994’s Clear and Present Danger. By the mid-’90s, the series looked unstoppable at the box office.
But with 2002’s The Sum of All Fears, Ben Affleck’s turn in the franchise’s leading role, the tentpole came down. As opposed to the previous films, The Sum of All Fears didn’t question America’s politically covert role in the world — instead, the movie praised it. Video game adaptations like The Division and Elite Squad were roundly criticized for their pro-fascist narratives. And the Chris Pine Jack Ryan reboot, 2014’s Shadow Recruit, came and went with nary a whimper.
So Stefano Sollima’s globetrotting combat thriller Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse isn’t just meant to stand on its own as an action film, it has the challenge of returning the Clancy brand to cinematic gold. In Amazon Prime’s Without Remorse, Navy SEAL John Clark (Michael B. Jordan) is stationed in Aleppo, Syria. Under CIA orders, he and his team, including his closest friend, Karen Greer (Jodie Turner-Smith), are preparing to raid a Syrian safehouse to save an operative. What their shady agency contact Robert Ritter (Jamie Bell) hasn’t told them is, this isn’t a Syrian safehouse. It belongs to the Russians. Though Clark’s team completes their mission, once they return home, mysterious assassins begin picking off the SEALs one by one, ultimately arriving on Clark’s doorstep.
Much like Shadow Recruit, Sollima’s film returns to Clancy’s basic building blocks: Russians, mutually assured destruction, suspicious American intelligence forces, and one hero to fight them all. But Without Remorse is also a convoluted thriller that’s far too scenically modest for its supposedly wide canvas, and way too shortsighted to maximize its Black lead character.
The narrow vision in Sollima’s thriller first seeps into Clark’s life. The Ford-led Jack Ryan films partly succeeded because they often threatened the American family unit, including Ryan’s pregnant wife in Patriot Games. Here, Clark’s wife Pam (Lauren London) is expecting the couple’s first child, a daughter. The two are a lovely couple. Jordan is as charming as ever, and London reciprocates the rapport. The kind of calm a picturesque family offers could be an effective juxtaposition with the choppy waters of international conflict. And Jordan’s best qualities as a performer, whether in Creed or Fruitvale Station, is his sweet, charming character. It’s an odd decision not to play to his strengths. Sollima unfortunately veers from those deeper thematic channels to a movie where the overbearing weight of intrigue dominates the story.
Russian spies arrive at the couple’s home, attacking Pam and nearly killing Clark. The attack spurs Clark to launch a globe-spanning mission to seek revenge. In the process, Without Remorse loses its emotional center — a grieving husband and father — and spins into a puzzling web of espionage. Clark actively suspects Ritter is up to no good. He further despises the agent when he and Secretary of Defense Thomas Clay (Guy Pearce) decide not to retaliate against the Russians. The trio’s uneasy dynamic fights to carry the film: Jamie Bell doesn’t sufficiently fulfill the brooding role he’s been assigned, and Pearce is almost too well-suited to imbue his dodgy official with any mystery. And none of the other oddly shaped clues — former informants and leaky intel meant to shake us off the trail — ever come together to form a coherent whole.
In spite of its big action billing, the thriller is frustratingly modest. It travels from Charlotte, North Carolina to Atlanta, Georgia, as well as Washington D.C., Syria, Germany, and Russia. But most of the settings lack memorable exterior shots. The audience would never know they’d moved to Germany if a title card didn’t tell them. The clear cost-cutting was probably instigated by budgetary concerns, but it restricts the scale of the movie. Instead, the filmmakers (including Jordan, who co-produced) understandably kicked far more resources behind the action sequences.
But even these look shabby. It isn’t a lack of special effects: a plane crashes, an apartment complex is blown to bits, and there’s an elaborate opening raid on a Russian stronghold. But the sequences lack urgency, especially the apartment-building fight, where Clark has to fight a Russian police force to find his escape. A great action scene offers a smaller story within the larger film, providing a beginning, middle, and end. Viewers can almost think alongside the fighter, and at points, still be left surprised. In Without Remorse, the action leaves the audience totally in the dark. What’s Clark’s strategy for exiting the complex? Was he always planning on using the backpack with explosives in that fashion? And how did he foresee the subterfuge that would lead to his escape? Too many questions are left unanswered because of insufficient visual planning, leaving viewers to wonder about the point of any of this.
Even with its confusing story, inert action, and limited scope, Without Remorse rings hollowest in its message. Sure, Sollima and screenwriters Taylor Sheridan (Sicario and Hell or High Water) and Will Staples smartly recall Clancy’s earlier themes of how governmental mistrust and mutually assured destruction in a Cold War time loop fueled the military-industrial complex. But when Clark says head-scratching lines like “we fought for what America could be,” or is surprised to learn his country would betray him so callously, it’s a reminder that in Clear and Present Danger and The Sum of All Fears, John Clark was played by white actors Willem Dafoe and Liev Schreiber, respectively. Because why would a Black man, even one in the military, be surprised to learn that his country is rotten?
Other scenes like Clark being lectured about how America needs outside enemies to find peace at home, or about his country’s apathy toward its Black and white patriots, leaves the audience to question why the filmmakers didn’t recraft this character to be closer to Jordan, and why Jordan didn’t see the incongruities behind the most obvious racial lessons being taught to a Black man. Mixed with the brief constructing of other Black folks, like Clark’s close colleague Greer, his wife, the couple’s pastor (played by a criminally underutilized Colman Domingo) — and a gross mid-credits scene that makes little sense given Clark’s experiences during the movie — the film’s pattern toward shallow characterization is clear. While Sollima tries to rekindle Clancy’s 1990s magic, Without Remorse is rendered as unmemorable schlock due to his inability to map the author’s familiar espionage themes onto a new protagonist with very different story requirements.
Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.