It takes a peculiar kind of ineptitude to cast an actor as good as Michael B Jordan and wind up with something as decidedly not good as ‘Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse.’ That title — which, read a certain way, might make you wonder what Tom Clancy did that was so bad — seems both disingenuous and faintly desperate, as if flogging the late author’s name might supply a badly needed credibility boost. We may be in a recognisably Clancyesque world where salt-of-the-earth renegades brush up against sinister government conspiracies, but when the wares on offer are this anonymous, this visually and narratively indifferent, the extra brand recognition can only help.
There’s no pleasure in reporting this. Jordan has worn the roles of actor and movie star interchangeably well, and until now I’d have been glad to follow him into just about any action franchise of his choosing. In particular, the ‘Creed’ movies suggested that one of Hollywood’s most overdone practices — the attempted rejuvenation of a long-in-the-tooth intellectual property — might actually yield dividends if it rested on Jordan’s mighty shoulders (to say nothing of his abs and biceps). If nothing else, by stepping into the boots of ex-Navy SEAL John Clark (né John Kelly) — previously seen as a supporting player in ‘Clear and Present Danger’ (Willem Dafoe) and ‘The Sum of All Fears’ (Liev Schreiber) — Jordan is now the first Black actor to play a Clancy hero, an achievement that would mean more if he’d been given something interesting to do.
You wouldn’t think that’d be too difficult, given that screenwriter Taylor Sheridan knows his way around a pulpy plot (‘Hell or High Water,’ ‘Wind River’) and freely deviates from the narrative specifics of ‘Without Remorse,’ the 1993 best-seller that served as Kelly/Clark’s origin story. Sheridan and his co-writer, Will Staples, have updated that book’s Vietnam War backdrop with a superficially topical present-day plot that begins in war-torn Aleppo, where Kelly and other SEALs take part in a hostage rescue mission that turns out to be something altogether more suspicious. But don’t bother parsing the geopolitics or thinking too hard about the movie’s reheated Cold War paranoia. All that really matters, in terms of your investment as a viewer, is that not long after Kelly has returned home to Washington, DC, and settled down for a quiet private-sector life, his very pregnant wife, Pam (Lauren London), is brutally murdered.
Personal tragedy has sent many an anti-hero on a righteous rampage, from Dr Paul Kersey to John Wick, whose respective vehicles depended for their impact on the ruthless manipulation of the audience’s sympathies. But Kelly’s tragedy doesn’t feel shattering or even life-altering; it feels rote, even callous. Barely five minutes after the sacrificial Pam is introduced, she and her unborn child are summarily dispatched by Russian assassins in a home invasion that leaves Kelly himself seriously wounded. But he swiftly rebounds, bulking himself up anew so that he can find out who’s behind this and other attacks — he’s not the only ex-SEAL who’s been targeted — and make them pay.
Forced to cycle through the stages of grief mostly off-screen, Jordan hurls himself into the vigilante-payback narrative with grim, one-note determination. The ensuing wall-to-wall action does afford a few highlights; it’s fun watching Kelly turn amateur arsonist and take no prisoners, though his most memorable melee finds him taking on multiple opponents at a time with just his bare fists and a strategically placed sink. Before long, he’s enlisted for a mission to Russia — overseen by a tight-lipped secretary of defence (Guy Pearce) and an ornery CIA director (Jamie Bell) — aimed at bringing the relevant hostiles to justice. There, he will be shocked to learn, amid harrowing underwater escapes, explosive shoot-outs and tedious chess metaphors, that war-profiteering governments sometimes behave unscrupulously to promote their notions of the national good.
The intended “gotcha!” force of that revelation — plus a wince-inducing twist of the “How did you know that thing I just mentioned that you would have had no above-board way of knowing?” variety — suggests that either Kelly or his creators haven’t watched too many political thrillers of late. The movie was directed with workmanlike intensity by Stefano Sollima, who previously made ‘Sicario: Day of the Soldado,’ a self-admiringly topical action movie that turned a very good film (the original ‘Sicario’) into a would-be series. Similarly mercenary plans are afoot for Jordan’s Kelly/Clark, to judge by all the laborious sequel foreshadowing going on in the pre- and mid-credits sequences. (‘Without Remorse,’ which was originally produced and set to be released by Paramount Pictures, is being distributed by Amazon Studios, which is also behind the ongoing series ‘Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan.’)
I generally loathe the pyramid-scheme-like designs of the contemporary Hollywood action franchise, which demands your investment in a lousy product now in exchange for ostensibly bigger and better payoffs later. But future instalments could be fun, I guess. With any luck we’ll see more of Jodie Turner-Smith (‘Queen & Slim’) as Lt Commander Karen Greer, Kelly’s toughest critic and closest ally. Their alternatively combative and companionable rapport is a nice touch, even if it’s in service of under-examined sentiments here like, “We served a country that didn’t love us back.” No thinking person could misunderstand what she means. But it’s an idea that deserves to be fully engaged, not exploited.
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‘Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse’ is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video in the UAE.