Without Remorse isn’t the first attempt to bring John Clark to the screen. The character, a ruthless CIA operative in the gruff Jack Ryan mould (both the creations of spy novelist Tom Clancy), enjoyed forgettable side roles in Clear and Present Danger (1994) and The Sum of All Fears (2002), played by Willem Dafoe and Liev Schriber respectively. Now he is played by Michael B Jordan in the new Amazon Prime thriller, a film that dusts off Clancy’s tired military clichés for another joyless go-around.
The plot is essentially empty hyperbole, a pulp boilerplate over which the various action set pieces can be draped. It opens with a dimly lit “Black Ops” rescue mission in Syria. Then Clark returns to the US and his generically happy home life. But before he’s had the chance to put his feet up, his team becomes the target of a mysterious killing spree. His home is broken into. His pregnant wife is killed. Clark is left in critical condition – though miraculously recovers. So he sets out for revenge and unearths a conspiracy that threatens to push the US to the brink of war.
If this sounds like a premise from decades ago, that’s because it is: adapted from Clancy’s 1993 book of the same name, Without Remorse makes plenty of tweaks to the source material, which was set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War. Mercifully, some of the book’s most objectionable facets – namely the inclusion of sadistic sexual violence – have been excised.
Of the film’s numerous fight scenes, the best is a short scrap inside a prison cell – a sequence that teasingly evokes better ones in Bronson and The Raid 2 – but the worst are interminably dry gunfights, gritty but not tense, elaborate but uninventive. Visually, too, it lacks panache. Action films like this are often where the cinema experience is most keenly missed, and the shootouts feel particularly dingy on a small screen. Underneath it all, the conundrum at the heart of all Tom Clancy violence: that one is supposed to find it simultaneously harrowing and, on some unspoken level, fetishistically cool.
Director Stefano Sollima and co-writer Taylor Sheridan are reunited here, two years after their collaboration on the objectionable Sicario 2: Soldado. Like Sheridan’s previous films (Wind River; Hell or High Water), Without Remorse is callous in its treatment of female characters: the role of Clark’s wife, Pam (Lauren London), feels particularly outdated. Underwritten and shot to pieces before the film gets going, Pam is nothing more than a microwave-ready “tragic backstory”, designed to spur Clark into action.
Jordan makes a fine Clark, but if you’ve seen him in literally anything else (such as Black Panther, or Creed), you’ve seen him be better. His character isn’t so much a person as an assault rifle on legs, but Jordan outshines his castmates, at least: Jamie Bell and Guy Pearce are insipid as a combative CIA chief and the secretary of defence, and Jodie Turner-Smith (Queen & Slim) never convinces as a US navy commander.
This is the first of two planned films starring Jordan’s John Clark, the next being Rainbow Six – a title familiar to fans of first-person shooter video games. Watch Without Remorse, and it’s easy to see why Clancy’s work is so suited to gaming. It’s an experience much like watching someone play Call of Duty for 110 minutes straight – action-packed, maybe, but oh so dreary.
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