Director: Stefano Sollima
Writers: Taylor Sheridan and Will Staples
Cinematography: Phillippe Rousselot
Edited by: Matthew Newman
Starring: Michael B Jordan, Jodie Turner-Smith, Jamie Bell, Guy Pearce and Lauren London
Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video
“You just won’t die,” a character says to John Kelly, the hero of Without Remorse. Actually, he can’t. Because John is a Navy SEAL, played by Michael B. Jordan, whose exquisitely chiselled body constitutes its own weapon. From the first few minutes of the film to the last, John risks his life. His preferred modus operandi is to put himself in the exact same danger that he puts the bad guys in – at one point, he sets a car on fire and then sits on the backseat asking questions. No prizes for guessing if John makes it out alive.
Without Remorse is an adaptation of Tom Clancy’s bestselling 1993 novel. It’s the origin story, showing us how John Kelly becomes John Clark, one of Clancy’s most popular characters, who has been played earlier by Willem Dafoe in Clear and Present Danger and Liev Schreiber in The Sum of All Fears. I haven’t read Without Remorse and am not very familiar with the Clancy universe, which includes books, films, television series and video games, so I went in bias-free.
The film has been directed by Stefano Sollima, who forged a path with naturalistic but hyper-violent storytelling like the mob television series Gomorrah and Sicario: Day of the Soldado. Without Remorse has been co-written by Taylor Sheridan, who scripted both the Sicario films and Hell or High Water. In other words, this is exactly the A-list crew you need to deliver a cracker of a thriller about geopolitics, conspiracy, murky morals and the call of duty.
That doesn’t happen. What the film does manage to do is construct a compelling central character who seems human despite the superhuman antics. Jordan has the acting chops to lift clichéd scenes – including ones with the pregnant wife who must be sacrificed. He finds the fragility in John Kelly’s armour, and brings intelligence and empathy to the role. Sollima consistently reiterates his vulnerability – so John gets shot. He cries. In a long underwater sequence, he comes up for air. There is no James Bond slickness about him. John comes off like a wounded animal, raging against his loss and willing to do whatever it takes to mete out punishment. As he says: ‘The contract’s broken. They’re going to play by my rules now. I’ll show them what a pawn can do to a king.’
This isn’t the most original set-up but Sollima shakes it up by giving us a woman as John’s commander, which hasn’t happened in the army yet but is satisfying to see on screen. Jodie Turner-Smith is the steely Karen Greer who goes into combat with John. She is as tough as the men around her. Their relationship is one of equals – Sollima makes sure to show us that despite John’s physical strength she can bring him to his knees. These two sleek fighting machines command the frame while Jamie Bell and Guy Pearce potter around, attempting to fill out their underwritten characters. Pearce is also saddled with the most feeble dialogue in the film.
The action is fierce and relentless – guns, bombs, hand-to-hand, on the ground, underwater, up in the sky. Cars explode, a plane is shot down, buildings are blown up. The body count is high. Impressively, Jordan has performed many of the stunts himself. But Sollima doesn’t make it seductive. It’s visceral and punishing. We see the dust, grime and impact. Men cough and stagger and die. Which of course doesn’t include John Kelly, who remains an indestructible, tragic avenging angel.
The novel was set during the Vietnam War but the story has been updated to present times. The film attempts to speak to the reality of contemporary polarised America but the plot is too formulaic and the commentary too thin to underpin the high-octane thriller with gravitas.
What we get, then, is sleek but standard spectacle anchored by a durable, charismatic hero. John Clark will undoubtedly return and perhaps even cross paths with Jack Ryan, Clancy’s other iconic creation. A coda sequence mid-way through the end credits sets up how that might play out. Clearly, there is much to be done.
You can watch Without Remorse on Amazon Prime Video.