If Without Remorse has any value at all, it’s as a headscratcher. You know it doesn’t work, but what were they attempting here?
The latest in Amazon’s series of Tom Clancy adaptations, Without Remorse was adapted from Clancy’s 1993 novel by acclaimed Sicario writer Taylor Sheridan and Will Staples, and was directed by Stefano Sollima. Sheridan, also of Hell Or High Water and Wind River, enlarges his following with every hyper-masculine shoot ’em up, but Without Remorse is less Sicario than Sicario: Day Of The Soldado, the last collaboration between Sheridan and Sollima — the latter of whom the son of cult Italian director Sergio Sollima and not quite the visual stylist Denis Villeneuve is.
In any Tom Clancy project you expect a certain amount of uniform worship and jargon-y walk and talks. On me! Watch your six! Stand down, lieutenant! I repeat, the professor is holding the conch! Yet despite the backdrop of geopolitcal intrigue, Without Remorse is almost Fast/Furious-esque in its pure ridiculousness. Which could be fun if it didn’t seem so accidental. The pure disrespect this film shows towards how anything works — hospitals, politics, warfare, physics — is glorious at times, but makes a weird mix with Clancy’s meticulously sexless torn-from-the-headlines Risk fantasies.
Michael B. Jordan plays John Kelly, though I didn’t catch his name until about 25 minutes in thanks to Without Remorse‘s muddy sound mix. Kelly, on assignment from shady CIA guy Robert Ritter (played by 35-year-old angsty teen Jamie Bell) leads his SEAL Team in a raid on an arms depot in Aleppo. Kelly’s team rises silently from a fountain like a float of crocodiles (why is there a fountain in an arms depot?) and much Call Of Duty-esque pew-pewing ensues. They double-tap every bad guy in the room before rescuing the hostage, only to discover to their surprise: these bad guys were… Russians!
This information is delivered momentously, as if it should hold great significance to us, though we’re not sure why. It’s an ongoing pattern in Without Remorse, a breathless, non-stop flood of countries, rogue agencies, bad guys, and arms caches, which seem to matter greatly to buff soldiers and sneering suits for reasons unclear to us. Kelly smells a rat, but before he can find it, the members of his team are all getting assassinated one by one. Kelly survives the attack on his house, but they’ve killed his wife! This time, it’s personal!
This kind of plot hokum can work in an action movie, provided the shoot-em-up and chop-socky scenes have an artistry that transcends the setup (Netflix’s Extraction being a good example). Without Remorse‘s action choreography is mostly just sort of utilitarian and lazy. There’s no exuberant gore or memorable violence, and half the time you can’t tell who is shooting whom or what blow Faceless Bad Guy A is even reacting to. I always wonder, if you care that little about the action, why is there so much of it?
If Without Remorse has an appeal, it’s of pure silliness. At one point, Kelly is lying in a hospital bed when his vital monitors start to beep. A pair of nurses, outside the room at the time, shout “Code blue!” and sprint to his bedside. Now, how would they know it’s a “code blue” from outside the room? Doesn’t matter! We need jargon, baby! If someone in a uniform doesn’t shout code words every 12 seconds the cameras will explode!
Without Remorse‘s best scene is probably its most ridiculous, a sequence where Kelly’s team gets shot down over the Barents Sea, then escape a sinking plane and sort of just surface in Murmansk. Every single aspect of the sequence is preposterous, and at no point does it appear that the people shooting it understand that it’s meant to take place above the Arctic Circle. Once in Murmansk, the whole gang is inexplicably there too. This is a movie where characters just seem to teleport to wherever the next scene is supposed to take place — Aleppo, DC, Russia, New York — with no explanation of how they got there or why.
Without Remorse attempts a few “big twists” in the final 20 minutes, only they don’t really come off because there isn’t anything to twist from — none of this plot was believable or even cogently explained in the first place. It felt like the filmmakers are constantly in a hurry. But in a hurry to get to what?
There’s a recurring chess motif (chess! in an action movie! have we ever seen this before?!) and it turns out the “king” was actually just a pawn. Which in practice means that the bad guy we only just met has been replaced with no bad guy. Instead, there’s 15 more minutes of extemporaneous lectures about the value of endless war. Was this what we were rushing to get to? A political rant with all the nuance of a stoned college student at 3 am? We could’ve used about half as much plot and twice as much passion.