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'Without Remorse' Review: A soldier’s familiar creed

Michael B. Jordan is mesmerizing as a grieving soldier in Without Remorse, but cliched material and murky direction undercuts his righteous vengeance.

Grieving Navy SEAL John Kelly (Michael B. Jordan) interrogates a Russian diplomat for information about the men who killed his pregnant wife Pam (Lauren London) in Stafeno Sollima's 'Without Remorse.'
(Image: © Prime Video)

Our Verdict

Michael B. Jordan was born to anchor a potential action franchise like this one, but not with underwhelming screenwriting and direction like this.

For

  • 🔪 Michael B. Jordan commands the screen as vengeful Navy SEAL John Kelly, exposing the man's vulnerability as well as his rage.
  • 🔪 Director Stefano Sollima finds beautiful moments to give give the path Jordan's character is on unique personality.

Against

  • 🔪 A cliche-laden script by Taylor Sheridan fails to approach familiar ideas of revenge and political intrigue with real uniqueness.
  • 🔪 Sollima's staging of action scenes in darkness undermines the visual impact of potentially intriguing scenarios.

Without Remorse will be available on Amazon Prime Video April 30, 2021.

From Dirty Harry to John Wick, cinema history is lousy with vigilante justice, but it’s become increasingly difficult to depict One Man’s Pursuit Of Vengeance without that One Man seeming like a fascist or a psychopath — or both. Without Remorse attempts to mitigate its main character’s quest by giving him permission by The Powers That Be, and then to take those powers to task, albeit not in the way that the film (much less contemporary society) probably should. Since exploding as a star with Creed and Black Panther, Michael B. Jordan has sought a similar kind of validation, first from studios and then from audiences, with decidedly mixed results. But even though he is as commanding and charismatic here as he is playing the conflicted main character of his Rocky spin-off, Stefano Sollima (Sicario: Day of the Soldado) is unfortunately not the right director to shepherd his first mission as an action hero to satisfying victory, as an escalating series of political thriller and spy clichés converge clumsily in action sequences too frequently shrouded by darkness.

Jordan plays John Kelly, a Navy SEAL whose tongue is almost as fast as his trigger finger, especially when he feels like the mission he and his men are given is unclear or perhaps being undertaken for the wrong reasons. After clashing with CIA operative Robert Ritter (Jamie Bell) over a hostage rescue from Russian military forces, he vividly learns the cost of obfuscation when a retaliation effort results in the murder of his pregnant wife Pam (Lauren London) and most of the remaining members of his team. While mourning Pam from a hospital bed, John obtains information from fellow soldier Karen Greer (Jodie Turner-Smith) about the assailants, and plots revenge on the only man who escaped with his life, Russian operative Victor Rykov (Brett Gelman).

Virtually crazed with revenge, Kelly stages an attack on a Russian diplomat in order to seek information about Rykov — obtaining the intel but landing in prison. But before he can be snuffed out by Russian mobsters while languishing in a cell, Naval Secretary Clay (Guy Pearce) offers him an unconventional opportunity to hunt down Rykov and bring him to justice. Reunited with Greer, and more reluctantly with Ritter, Kelly leads a deadly mission crossing international waters and into the deepest heart of Russia to capture Rykov; but as the team crosses one impossible threshold after another, Kelly begins to wonder if there are reasons other than satisfying his bloodlust that Clay and his superiors have allowed him to risk relations between the U.S. and Russia in order to apprehend this terrorist threat.

Adapted from the 1993 book of the same by Tom Clancy, Without Remorse takes place in the same literary (and one now presumes, cinematic) universe as Jack Ryan, so suffice it to say that the source material carries an automatic pedigree of authenticity. Unfortunately, almost 30 years have passed since its initial publication, allowing for dozens upon dozens of aggrieved husbands and fathers to swear vengeance upon whoever murdered their most vulnerable loved ones — which means that the emotional sting of poor Pam’s death resonates less as a profound loss than shorthand motivation for one man possessing “a certain set of skills,” as another franchise succinctly put it. But the other problem is that back in the heyday of films like The Hunt For Red October and the Ford Jack Ryan films that followed, political jockeying was slightly more gobsmacking to consider; again, there have been too many stories told, many of them actually true, where leaders on every side of whatever conflict has been depicted have been all too willing to sacrifice the lives of soldiers when accounting for them became too much of a political hot potato.

And so, in 2019 (when this film is set), you have a hotshot soldier who torches a limousine in front of an airline terminal and murders a dignitary, and promptly gets released from prison to complete an extrajudicial capture-but-let’s-be-honest-it’s-a-murder in a foreign country with which we have chilly diplomatic relations. That he, and we, eventually learn that the motives for putting Kelly back into action are dubious doesn’t relieve the improbable level of complexity behind the conspiracy that’s eventually unearthed, but worse than that, we’ve seen this kind of double cross too many times for any of it to register as more than a rearrangement of conventions on an extremely familiar genre rollercoaster. And so, what’s left is the question, how well does the film deploy those conventions while staging some all-out badass action, and the disappointing answer ‘not especially well.’

On Day of the Soldado, Sollima was never going to bring the level of effortless artistry that Denis Villenueve brought to Sicario, but he skillfully juggled the pieces of that puzzle as screenwriter Taylor Sheridan pulled back our perspective to see the bigger picture. Again working from material by Sheridan, however, the filmmaker finds some great little moments of personality for Jordan’s character and his experiences in this world of mystery and betrayal, but he repeatedly whiffs the opportunity to mount action scenes in a way that makes them memorable or visually dynamic. Notwithstanding the unlikely circumference of its rotation, using a rolling flashlight to illuminate Kelly’s initial confrontation with Rykov is a clever idea; similarly, his pause to capture Kelly’s flooding of a sink and preparation for the phalanx of prison guards invading his cell gives the moment intimacy, and personality. But virtually all of the military operations take place at night, and even if you can make out what’s happening on screen, the sense of spatial distance between characters and their relationship to an environment that rapidly refills with enemy combatants becomes alternately dizzying and boring.

Evidenced by a mid-credits sequence (and clichés that have been used everywhere from the Marvel Cinematic Universe to the Mission: Impossible franchise), Without Remorse is meant to be the start of a two (or one assumes if it’s successful, more) part franchise — and quite frankly, there are few actors more welcome in this sort of material, or just plain on screen, than Jordan. He brings a palpable intensity to his work, but also a vulnerability, that makes him believable and mesmerizing on screen. But even as the story of a puppet whose journey is about learning who’s truly pulling the strings, Jordan can’t bring freshness and originality to a story that’s been done, and can’t even distract us from that familiarity with engaging visuals. Many of the characters, including Bell’s CIA operative and especially Turner-Smith’s Lt. Commander, are much more interesting than the material they’re given.

In which case, except as a prelude, or preview, of what’s to come for Kelly and the rest, Without Remorse too much like those old Tom Clancy adaptations, but to the opposite effect: where once they were skillfully enough written that they merely needed to plug in a star to make them work, this one works only when there’s a star there to prop up all the stuff that audiences have already seen too many times. There’s an opportunity, and a real sense with this film, of a team coming together; but like with John Kelly, sometimes a few of the members just don’t work out, and may even be rotten — but the less time spent looking back, recapturing glories or avenging perceived wrongs, the better its future will be.