Because my maternal grandfather was in the Navy during World War II, he was naturally drawn to the early novels of the late Tom Clancy, whose spy thrillers are often soaked in military lingo and strategy, adding an incredible layer of realism to the stories of Jack Ryan, such as The Hunt for Red October and Patriot Games. The only book my grandfather ever recommended to me was Red October, and I got hooked on the authenticity of these often dense writings, even if I wasn’t big on the thinly veiled conservative politics.
Early in the Ryan books, Clancy introduces a character named John Clark, a former Navy SEAL working as an operations officer for the CIA (he was even Ryan’s bodyguard/driver at points). Clark represented the darker parts of what Ryan was capable of, and he became a fan favorite almost immediately. In film, he’s been played by Willem Dafoe in Clear and Present Danger and Liev Schreiber in The Sum of All Fears (he’s also become a regular on the Jack Ryan series on Amazon Prime). But the new movie Without Remorse is an adaptation of the book that told Clark’s origin story and revealed to readers his real name: John Kelly (played here by Michael B. Jordan).
After carrying out an unorthodox operation on behalf of Secretary Clay (Guy Pearce) and his CIA lackey Robert Ritter (Jamie Bell), all of the members of Kelly’s team begin getting picked off stateside by a mysterious army that appears to be Russian in origin. When Kelly’s pregnant wife is murdered in their bed while Kelly is taking care of the other killers in their house, he makes it his mission to find the assassins behind it. At one point, Kelly corners a diplomat whom he believes has answers, sets fire to his car while he’s still in it, and jumps inside the burning car to interrogate the guy until he gets answers. Kelly is serious about all things in his life, but he’s a man possessed when he sets out on this self-imposed mission.
Working with fellow SEAL member Karen Greer (Jodie Turner-Smith, I believe playing a younger version of the same character that James Earl Jones portrayed in the first three Jack Ryan movies, or at least she has the same last name), Kelly is allowed to assemble a team and head into Russia to follow leads on these killings. But what he finds not only exposes a covert plot that might result in an all-out war between the U.S. and Russia, it also forces him to make decisions that may make him an enemy of his own country thanks to some shady dealings from higher-ups in the government. Brett Gelman plays a fascinating link between the murders and those responsible, and although he only has one sequence in the film, it stands out in Without Remorse.
Directed by Stefano Sollima (Sicario: Day of the Soldado; the Gomorrah TV series) and adapted by Taylor Sheridan and Will Staples, Without Remorse is primarily concerned with intense, brutal and relentless action, the kind that feels like roaring thunder and blinding rage. And while Kelly’s soul concern is finding these murderers, when he realizes what’s at stake, he allows his better judgment to take over to avoid tragic consequences for the world. The banter between Jordan and Turner-Smith (Queen & Slim) resembles that of two old friends who understand fully both the importance of what they are doing and the chain of command—she seems more apt to follow orders, while he needs his vengeance whether he’s given permission to get it or not.
As one might expect, we eventually find out how and why Kelly changed his name to Clark, and the film even has a mid-credits scene that sets up an early Clark-centric sequel, Rainbow Six. I’m an admitted sucker for no-nonsense action; give me straight forward and ruthless over bells and whistles any day, and Without Remorse is basically nothing but that. Jordan is absolutely the right actor for this job, as he’s able to show us a more cold-hearted and calculating side to his range. There’s a sequence involving Kelly escaping a building in Russia that’s surrounded by police who have no other goal than to flush out and kill him, and it’s a steady stream of bullets, explosions, smoke, and pain.
Is it pro-military? If you don’t know the answer to that before watching this, that’s your own damn fault. But that’s not why I enjoyed this exercise so much. What Without Remorse does so successfully is capture the spirit of Clancy’s writing. I don’t even remember the novel that well, so I couldn’t tell you how close the film follows it. It’s certainly been updated to show us present-day weaponry and the political climate, not to mention swapping the race and gender of some lead characters. But the realism of the operations are what pulled me in and kept me locked into these characters and situations, which, in an action movie, is something of a rarity.
The film begins streaming Friday on Amazon Prime Video.
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