Michael B. Jordan stars as a Navy SEAL caught up in a U.S.-Russian conspiracy while avenging the murder of his wife and unborn child in Stefano Sollima’s visceral action thriller, streaming on Amazon.
If you’re going to build a new character-driven action franchise — and hang tight for a coda sequence midway through the end credits to see how that would take shape — then you need a charismatic lead to lay the foundations. Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse certainly has that in Michael B. Jordan. He brings charged physicality and emotional intensity to John Clark in this origin story of a shadow figure from the Jack Ryan novels who graduated to protagonist with the author’s 1993 best-seller. Stefano Sollima’s taut tactical military thriller departs plot-wise from the source material but stays true to the core element of a driven, grieving man in a ruthless world where soldiers are pawns.
When Paramount’s theatrical release became another COVID-19 casualty, Amazon swooped in to nab what’s sure to be a high-profile streaming premiere, as well as an adjunct to its Jack Ryan series. Jordan is the first Black actor to step into the military boots of the super-soldier who goes on in the Rainbow Six video game series and a shelf full of Clancy novels to head an elite multinational counterterrorism unit, a role previously played by Willem Dafoe (in Clear and Present Danger) and Liev Schreiber (in The Sum of All Fears).
The film adaptation has been in development on and off since soon after the book was published, initially at the now-defunct Savoy Pictures. Keanu Reeves and Tom Hardy both were approached to play the lead at various stages, with Laurence Fishburne and Gary Sinise also slated to co-star at one point. John Milius worked with Clancy on a version he intended to write and direct, before the project later bounced to Paramount, with Christopher McQuarrie directing.
Jordan’s attachment was first announced as a two-picture package, following Without Remorse with Rainbow Six. Taylor Sheridan, whose specialty field extends from the Neo-Western (Hell or High Water, Yellowstone) into urban crime and combat, was brought in to rewrite the adaptation, reuniting with Sicario: Day of the Soldado director Sollima, who first made his name on the terrific Italian crime series Gomorrah. Will Staples (who wrote the blockbuster Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 video game) subsequently joined as co-writer.
The result is a solid entry in the Clancy screen canon — gritty, briskly paced, laced with vigorously choreographed fight scenes, explosive weapons action and twisty political intrigue that seems prescient as it taps into the most strained period in U.S.-Russia relations since the Cold War. It doesn’t reinvent the genre, but nor does it try to fix what’s not broken, which should work just fine for Clancy’s legions of readers.
The question, in the unknown new frontier of post-pandemic franchises, is what happens to the planned second installment, not to mention any possible future entries, without the launch pad of a theatrical release. Given the robust groundwork here, it would be a shame not to see Jordan continue developing a character already furnished with multiple future story arcs.
While Jack Ryan is the brains of Clancy’s espionage thrillers, John Clark — introduced here under his real name, John Kelly — is more like the brawn. Working under Navy SEAL Lt. Commander Karen Greer (Jodie Turner-Smith), he’s first seen as Senior Chief in a tricky mission in Aleppo to extract a CIA agent taken hostage by Syrian forces. But the patchy brief from CIA official Robert Ritter (Jamie Bell) leaves them unprepared to tackle Russian ex-military in a safe house that turns out to be an arms depot. The surprise fireworks seed animosity between John and the seemingly shady Ritter.
Stateside, three months later, two members of Greer’s Aleppo squad are killed with chilling dispatch in what appear to be retaliation hits. Just as John is preparing to quit the military, take a private security job and welcome his first child, masked Russians descend on his Washington, D.C., home in a nerve-rattling night-vision sequence. He sustains multiple bullet wounds while killing two out of three assassins, but not before his pregnant wife Pam (Lauren London) is murdered in their bed. Cue revenge.
At Langley, Greer learns from Ritter and Secretary of Defense Thomas Clay (Guy Pearce) that the CIA is ready to consider the score settled and the case closed, suspending further investigation. With one Russian killer still on the loose, this doesn’t sit well with John. He goes rogue, putting some impressive kamikaze moves — shades of Liam Neeson’s grim determination in the Taken thrillers — on an untouchable Russian diplomat (Merab Ninidze) at Dulles airport to get the name of escaped assassin Victor Rykov (Brett Gelman).
The plotting from there on out often favors speed over the detailed clarity of Clancy’s prose, perhaps because it pretty much ditches the original story. The chess metaphors, in particular, feel under-developed. Still, there’s plenty of knife-edge action to keep you glued, nudged along by a suspenseful score from Icelandic multi-instrumentalist Jónsi of Sigur Rós. There’s a narrow escape by John from prison guards in cahoots with Russian mobsters, a hairy mission flight that gets shot down in Russian territorial waters and a face-off with snipers that tears up almost an entire block in the port city of Murmansk. This raises questions about a possible setup that John goes ghost to uncover in another near-suicidal underwater sequence.
Sollima’s muscular direction at its best echoes the hard-edged efficiency of vintage Tony Scott, aided by Philippe Rousselot’s dynamic widescreen camerawork, often in tight spaces. The fight sequences never make the mistake of making the physical clashes look too slick and easy; the immersive action is more punishing than heroic.
There’s not much flesh on the bones of the story’s secondary figures, but the cast gets the job done. As he has demonstrated in the Creed movies, Jordan — who does most of his own stunts — can play the tenacious tough guy with sensitivity, deepened here by John’s haunted sense of loss and his compromised trust in the institutions he once believed were worth fighting for. The positioning of him with another Black actor, Queen & Slim breakout Turner-Smith, in senior military roles helps contemporize the material, even if there’s a suggestion in their characters, as well as Bell’s, of preparatory table-setting for potential new chapters down the line. Audiences weary of superhero franchises and craving something leaner and meaner could do worse.
Production companies: Paramount Pictures, Skydance, New Republic Pictures, Weed Road Pictures, The Saw Mill, Outlier Society
Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Bell, Jodie Turner-Smith, Guy Pearce, Lauren London, Brett Gelman, Jacob Scipio, Jack Kesy, Colman Domingo, Todd Lasance, Cam Gigandet, Luke Mitchell, Merab Ninidze
Director: Stefano Sollima
Screenwriters: Taylor Sheridan, Will Staples, based on the novel by Tom Clancy
Producers: Akiva Goldsman, Josh Appelbaum, André Nemec, Michael B. Jordan
Executive producers: David Ellison, Dana Goldberg, Don Granger, Brian Oliver, Bradley J. Fischer, Valeri An, Alana Mayo, Denis L. Stewart, Gregory Lessans
Director of photography: Philippe Rousselot
Production designer: Kevin Kavanaugh
Costume designer: Tiffany Hasbourn
Editor: Matthew Newman
Visual effects supervisor: Sven Martin
Stunt coordinator: Doug Coleman
Casting: Mary Vernieu, Lindsay Graham-Ahanonu
Rated R, 109 minutes