“Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse” starts streaming this week on Amazon Prime. It’s taken decades to get Clancy’s book on film and you can feel the bumps in the road. No knock on serving audiences hungering for an R-rated, red-meat, military thriller. But it should have been better than this.
Starring the reliably riveting Michael B. Jordan, “Without Remorse” is a mixed bag that finds its roots in the 1993 Clancy novel that told the origin story of John Clark, a former Navy SEAL and rogue CIA operative who went on to lead a counterterrorism unit codenamed Rainbow.
Clark, who started out in the Clancyverse as John Kelly, an Irish-Catholic from Indianapolis, was previously played on screen by Willem Dafoe (“A Clear and Present Danger”) and Liev Schreiber (“The Sum of All Fears”), both second-fiddles to Clancy’s most famous character -- former CIA analyst and later U.S. President Jack Ryan -- acted in succession by Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck, Chris Pine and on Amazon’s hit TV series by John Krasinski.
Jordan is the main event in “Without Remorse.” No Ryan needed. The great Black hope of his generation in films from “Fruitvale Station” to “Black Panther” and two “Creed” megahits wears the role of Clark like a second skin, commanding the screen with force and feeling.
Download the all new "Popcorn With Peter Travers" podcasts on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Tunein, Google Play Music and Stitcher.
The plot, sloppily updated from Vietnam to Syria, is strictly standard issue, which is a shame given the participation of Taylor Sheridan whose award-caliber scripting of “Sicario,” “Hell or High Water” and “Wind River” proves he’s capable of way better than warmed-over Clancy.
But sloppy seconds are what we get as our hero and his SEAL team return from taking out Moscow special forces in Syria only to be executed at home by purported Russian assassins. John barely survives after shooting down three of the four killers, but his pregnant wife Pam (Lauren London), carrying their unborn daughter, is murdered in bed.
Hoo-boy! John is mad as hell and his rage fuels the movie. It also sticks Jordan in one-note revenge mode as John hunts the surviving assassin, ending up in prison for leaving so many bodies around. Even his Navy ally, Lt. Commander Karen Greer (Jodie Turner-Smith, from “Queen & Slim”), can’t help, but cheers to Turner-Smith and Jordan for their heroic Black representation in a traditionally white genre.
Slippery CIA boss Robert Ritter (Jamie Bell, oozing creepy agendas) is hotly against having this vigilante join the secret mission to extract the fourth man, Victor Rykov (Brett Gelman), from Russia. But Secretary of Defense Thomas Clay (Guy Pearce) thinks John is just the killing machine to do it, providing he returns to prison after completing the mission.
Like that’s going to happen. “Without Remorse” is all about action. It’s a major plus that Jordan does many of his own stunts. And though director Stefano Sollima does woefully little to develop the supporting characters, he comes up aces with the physical fireworks. The scene of John escaping a jet that’s just crashed in Russian territorial waters is breathtaking.
It’s hard to tell what a Reagan-era conservative like Clancy, who died in 2013, would make of the film’s lame attempt to replicate Cold War paranoia in the current tension between the U.S. and Russia.
“Without Remorse” ends with a brazen setup for a sequel called “Rainbow 6,” from the Clancy book that spawned a cash grab video game. Ugh! Still, never count out Jordan. Just make it more playful next time, please, less grim and perfunctory.