(WITHOUT REMORSE is out on April 30th on Amazon Prime Video)
The whole Jack Ryan series, which WITHOUT REMORSE spins off from, is a bizarre cavalcade of insecurities. Ostensibly it’s the ultimate Mary Sue experience for a particular group of men, namely those who find enjoyment in harshly jingoistic and America-centric war novels, where super-powered working stiffs rebuff faceless foreign threats. They’re geopolitical nightmares, relics of the Cold War, which felt dated before the 90s even began in proper.
Based on Tom Clancy‘s series of books, each Jack Ryan film and series to date caters to this macho-posturing, even as the movies themselves try their hardest to indicate otherwise. To that end, it is to the credit of WITHOUT REMORSE that it doesn’t try hiding anything. Instead, it gleefully embraces the stupidity and misplaced anger that comes with the source material.
Same war, different day
Originally set during the American War in Vietnam, WITHOUT REMORSE moves the adaptation to a more current war in Syria, where a clandestine operation goes awry. John Clark (later John Kelly, which passes for an undercover name now) and his team are ambushed and barely make it out alive. In their wake, they leave corpses bearing Russian military tags — a country they’re not officially at war with yet.
Suffice to say, things spin out of control, and soon John and his wife come under attack. Waking days later to find his pregnant spouse murdered, John swears vengeance on the last remaining attacker, setting a plan in motion that makes no sense but involves multiple action set-pieces on foreign soil.
Everything gets very silly very quickly. John gets shot multiple times during the nightly raid, yet his body is conspicuously lacking in bullet holes or scars. This might be because Michael B. Jordan (also a producer on the film) has a vested interest in showing his expensive workout routine as much as possible. Also, despite establishing how hard he’s working on rehab, it’s only a matter of days before he’s lifting heavy equipment out of sinking planes and climbing rafters to ambush villains.
It’s here that the Mary Sue aspect comes to roost. Everything John does is miraculous and just, even when he’s breaking the law in the name of vigilantism. His characterisation is typical of Clancy’s genre; a man driven superficially by revenge, but ultimately by The American Way, disposing her enemies from without and within.
Who these people are or why they do what they do isn’t answered. There’s a bizarre cameo from Brett Gelman, who’s there to ensure we realize his character matters. But anything resembling a coherent motive or compelling narrative is entirely non-existent.
Not that Jordan doesn’t give a compelling performance. He’s perfectly serviceable as a man of singular vision, but he can’t help a script that’s so minimalist it might as well not exist. There’s a late-in-the-game expository reveal of the villain that would elsewhere come off as hamfisted, but here it’s utterly necessary as the rest of the film barely makes sense.
Such a trite script is also uncharacteristic for writer Taylor Sheridan, co-writer on the project, whose best work like HELL OR HIGH WATER and WIND RIVER effortlessly balanced tone with character. Here, all such nuance is noticeably absent, instead replaced with stereotypes and ugly reductionism. How much of this is the fault of Sheridan, the source material, or co-writer Will Staples, who previously wrote for the equally distasteful CALL OF DUTY franchise, remains a mystery.
At least it looks good
The cinematography by Phillipe Rousselot is grand and often beautiful, especially when he’s painting with shadows towards the finale. Assisting Jordan is the great Jodie Turner-Smith, who sadly gets very little to do with her majestic screen presence. Similarly, an otherwise solid cast (including Jamie Bell and Guy Pearce) feels utterly aimless in underwritten parts that only deliver exposition.
Directed by veteran filmmaker Stefano Sollima, who previously worked with Sheridan on the passable, but ill-advised SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO, WITHOUT REMORSE, for the most part, looks and sounds good. Some moments even are impressive, mostly thanks to Sollima’s preference to shoot in long, wide, and uninterrupted takes.
But the action suffers from the same Mary Sue syndrome, where our hero can’t lose unless the plot specifically calls for a tragic loss, which results in every single shootout looking and feeling the same.
The pattern is frustrating; every single scenario ends the same way. Each is yet another excuse for a hero shot for Jordan. It’s not that he doesn’t deserve them or that the genre isn’t particularly egregious with them, to begin with, but rarely do they feel as unearned as here.
Because in a film without substance or meaty theme to dig into, the action sequences are the only thing worth writing home about. And when even those are lacklustre, it leaves the film dangling limply in the wind. Not quite a disaster, but certainly nothing worth looking at for two hours as you try and decipher whether or not it has any meaning in the first place.