Though the novel it’s based on is simply called “Without Remorse,” the Amazon original movie Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse firmly establishes its IP provenance in its official name. The title’s prefix ensures that it will be quickly found by dads everywhere searching for “Tom Clancy” on Amazon — and that it will be easily identifiable with their successful show Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan. Sure, the e-commerce and content giant could have simply added a tag on the backend, but the user-facing title makes it clear that this isn’t just any old original story (because who wants those?); instead it’s the origin story of John Clark. However, despite the bestselling author’s name, there’s little to distinguish this bland, utterly boring action film, making it appear closer to a Clancy knockoff than the real deal, like a misspelling-filled Amazon listing that garners one-star reviews.
Previously played by Willem Dafoe in 1994’s Clear and Present Danger and Liev Schreiber in 2002’s The Sum of All Fears, Clark is portrayed here by Michael B. Jordan. He’s introduced not as the John Clark known to fans of the Jack Ryan books, movies, and TV show, but as John Kelly. In the film’s first minutes, the Navy SEAL helps extract a hostage from Aleppo, Syria, where his team is surprised to discover they are fighting Russian soldiers, information that CIA agent Robert Ritter (Jamie Bell) didn’t feel they needed to know. Shortly after John returns home to his pregnant wife, Pam (Lauren London), she and their unborn daughter are murdered in a string of killings related to the operation he and his team just completed. John barely survives the attack, and when it becomes clear that the U.S. won’t investigate his family or fellow soldiers’ deaths, John vows revenge. The Navy SEAL’s impulse of self-sacrifice bleeds into self-destruction, as John uses his elite skills to find justice outside the law.
Written by Taylor Sheridan and Chris Staples, Without Remorse lacks the propulsive energy of Sheridan’s best work. The solid Sicario (2015) and the truly great Hell or High Water (2016) had a strong sense of place and character, but Without Remorse is set both everywhere and nowhere, and is populated by no one. Like any espionage movie, Without Remorse jets across the globe, but international settings and domestic ones alike lack the details that make places come alive on film.
Characters wander in and out of scenes with little definition as to who they really are or what they’re doing there, even when they’re played by talented actors like Guy Pearce, Jodie Turner-Smith, Brett Gelman, and Colman Domingo. Domingo — so perfect in 2020’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and, you know, everything he appears in — is so underutilized in Without Remorse that he should have been promised a larger role in Rainbow Six, the sequel teased in the mid-credits scene, but it seems unlikely. The script focuses on a single, facile metaphor — the pawn and king in chess — that it beats repeatedly like a man John blames for the death of his wife. And that wife? All we know of John’s dead wife is her name, which he commands people to say in his quest for justice. She only exists for her death to fuel John’s often brutal vengeance.
Casting Jordan makes sense for such a physical role; in 2015’s Creed and its sequel, as well as 2018’s Black Panther, the actor proved that he knows how to fight on screen. But out of all its set pieces, only one in Without Remorse is actually compelling and makes some sense, even with Jordan’s physicality. Action sequences that should feel thrilling are interminable thanks to Stefano Sollima’s lifeless direction. He allows none of Jordan’s charm or range to appear in his film either; of course, John grieves after his wife’s murder, but Jordan doesn’t get much to do to express it other than pound the ground. As he exists here, John could’ve been played by anyone with a nice set of traps who can throw a punch. In fact, the cast is filled with talented people who are either miscast or not given much to do. After 2019’s Queen & Slim, I wanted to see Turner-Smith in anything and everything, but I clearly should’ve been more specific in what I was asking for.
It isn’t just the lackluster action scenes that tempt viewers toward their phones — or simply turning the movie off in favor of thousands of other options. Without Remorse suffers for its dearth of dynamic set pieces, but it also seems disinterested in engaging with the moral complexity of what John is doing by taking justice into his own hands. You’ve got to have one or the other; you can’t be both dull and dumb.
“Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse” streams Friday on Amazon Prime Video.