Without Remorse on Amazon Prime: Another blah Tom Clancy adaptation

Review: Michael B. Jordan goes full John Wick, but succumbs to hoary cliches.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Richard Trenholm
5 min read
Michael B Jordan in Without Remorse

Jamie Bell and Michael B. Jordan are gunning for each other.

Amazon Prime Video

It must be tough being married to an action movie badass. Just when your boo comes home from the war ready to settle down and start a family, you get caught in the crossfire and send him spiraling into revenge mode. Seriously, if you're Michael B. Jordan's pregnant wife in the new Tom Clancy movie adaptation Without Remorse, you probably shouldn't even bother picking a color for the nursery.

Originally meant for a big-screen release, Without Remorse streams on Amazon Prime Video  starting Friday April 30. Jordan is eye-wateringly jacked as Navy SEAL badass John Kelly, aka best-selling novelist Tom Clancy's secondary hero John Clark. Kelly/Clark isn't as famous as Clancy's biggest creation, Jack Ryan -- played by John Krasinski in a recent TV series on Amazon Prime Video -- but what he lacks in name recognition he makes up for in lethal finishing moves. Creeping through war zones, efficiently headshotting baddies and rendezvousing at the exfil, he's John Wick in camo gear. 

Without Remorse is directed with a steady eye by Stefano Sollima, who previously helmed gritty TV dramas Gomorrah and Suburra. The script comes courtesy of Taylor Sheridan, who wrote the Oscar-nominated Hell or High Water and TV show Yellowstone. Sheridan also wrote the Sicario movies, the second of which was directed by Sollima, and there's a strong Sicario vibe here: frowny geopolitical intrigue punctuated by bursts of action shot in an austere, slightly detached way. 

That's a classy pedigree behind the camera, but don't be fooled. For all its lingering camerawork and spine-tingling music, this is still a film featuring characters named Hatchet, Dallas and Thunder. All the slow-burning cinematography in the world can't disguise that Without Remorse is assembled almost entirely from creaky spy/action movie cliches.

Cocky special ops dudes trade barbs with twitchy CIA agents in war zones. Guest stars coldly eye each other across desks while quietly manipulating the lives of the men and women who work for them. The hero wakes up just in time to go ballistic on a kill team sneaking into his house. And most clanging of all, the hero is motivated by the murder of his pregnant wife.

Obviously this is an adaptation of a nearly 30-year-old best seller, so a few hoary old cliches are to be expected. But the book isn't even about Kelly avenging his wife's death -- she dies in a car accident in the novel, which then follows him seeking revenge for the death of a different woman. The filmmakers actually added in this hoary old cliche. Look, if you can update the story from Vietnam to Syria and drop the Baltimore drug dealer plotline, you can probably swerve such an overused and unpleasant plot point while you're at it.

Michael B Jordan in Without Remorse

Jodie Turner-Smith and Michael B. Jordan shoot the breeze in Without Remorse.

Amazon Prime Video

So Kelly comes home from war to be with his pregnant wife, who wants him to retire from the military, but he isn't sure, and blah blah even the filmmakers don't care about this bit. Kelly's squad is summarily dispatched, his wife gets caught in the crossfire, yada yada let's go do some revenge. The film ignites -- literally -- when Kelly's rage is channeled against a Russian bigwig, and it's in these flashes of inventive sadism that Without Remorse hints at being its own thing. A flashlight rolling across a floor provides one of the film's tensest moments, and there's a bit where Kelly peels off his shirt and prepares for a fight that's just as riveting as the punch-up that follows.

But in the second half things get a bit muddier, with a long slog of dark firefights. Sheridan's co-writer, Will Staples, started out writing video games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, and the film's later action scenes often stick with Jordan as he's attacked from afar. Gamers will recognize these visuals, and you may find they immerse you in the hero's peril, like it's you crouching behind that wall for some flimsy cover. But it does mean a lot rides on how long you're prepared to watch a guy crouch behind a wall.

It doesn't help that much of the action takes place in the dark, or that the bad guys are an endless supply of anonymously masked and body-armored nobodies. At least when Kelly is pursuing revenge he's a real person dealing with other real people, although everybody delivers their lines like they'll have to pay back their entire salary if they look for even a second like they're enjoying themselves. Maybe the constant frowning and clenched-jaw mumbling is a comment on the numbing effect of killing and manipulating your fellow man, but I doubt it.

In the lead role, Michael B. Jordan has little to work with other than "badass + dead wife," but he's a magnetic physical presence nonetheless. He made his name in the Creed films, a modern update of the Rocky films from the 1970s and '80s starring Sylvester Stallone, so it's perhaps fitting he's now slotted into a retooling of Stallone's ultraviolent traumatized-veteran Rambo films. 

One of the more human moments is a scene where Kelly delivers an embittered speech about why he fought for his country, but the film never questions his war-fighting role -- so you might miss the irony that this guy is enraged about war intruding into his home when his whole job is intruding into other countries. For a film about the consequences of geopolitical violence, Without Remorse is remarkably offhand about dropping trained killers into sovereign countries, though to be fair it does give you plenty of time to ponder such things -- just wait for the hero to crouch behind a wall, and let your mind wander.

Still, this is a Tom Clancy adaptation, so it's hardly likely to meditate on foreign policy with any great depth. It's also paving the way for another shoot-'em-up sequel based on the Rainbow Six games, thanks to one of the most tacked on post-credit sequences you'll ever sit through. This clangingly out-of-nowhere sequel setup is delivered through such gritted teeth it seems even the actors don't want to talk about another film.

Without Remorse suffers from the same problem as the Jack Ryan series also streaming on Amazon . Tom Clancy may've invented this kind of international thriller, but his work has been so influential that it now appears hackneyed and cliched. Like the Jack Ryan series, Without Remorse is slick stuff and will probably engage fans of the genre, but it arrives without much freshness or originality.

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