The signature action-hero move of John Clark, the rogue Navy SEAL played by Michael B. Jordan in Without Remorse, involves trapping someone inside a car that’s on fire or sinking into a river in order to get them to talk. He does this two times — the first to extract information about who killed his wife, and the second to get his target to utter said wife’s name out loud before dying. The trouble with this technique is that John Clark apparently has to be in the car himself when attempting it. Early in the movie, he T-bones a former Russian Federal Security Service member on his way to the airport, pours gasoline all over the wrecked vehicle, sets it on fire, and then gets inside. This is supposed to look cool, with the flames leaping and the window glass splintering in the heat (John Clark is a loose cannon! He doesn’t give a damn if he lives or dies!). Instead, it is just exceedingly funny (John Clark is so tough he’s ready to self-immolate in order to intimidate someone! He doesn’t care that he could just stand outside issuing threats through the window!). John Clark may be as good with a knife as he is with a gun and able to hold his breath indefinitely, but man, does he seem just dumb as a rock.
John Clark is a Tom Clancy creation who exists in the same military-espionage universe as the better-known but similarly double-first-named Jack Ryan, who over the years has been played on the big screen by Ben Affleck, Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, and Chris Pine. Recently, the role’s been filled by John Krasinski, whose Jack Ryan series is two seasons deep on Amazon and set for another one. Without Remorse might look like part of an effort by the online monolith to build up some kind of misbegotten Clancyverse, but it’s actually a COVID casualty that was initially intended for theaters, then offloaded by Paramount after its planned release was delayed one too many times. The film was supposed to pave the way for a follow-up adaptation of Rainbow Six, a John Clark–centric novel with more name recognition due to the video-game franchise it inspired. That seems unlikely at this point, for reasons that can’t be pinned entirely on the pandemic. Without Remorse is awful — an incoherently shot, grindingly dull movie in which just about every actor manages to seem miscast.
That includes Jordan, an unarguable movie star with an inherently disarming quality onscreen that his best recent parts have emphasized — whether he’s playing a hero, like his cocky newcomer with so much to prove in Creed, or an antagonist, like his angry but idealistic Erik Killmonger in Black Panther. In Without Remorse, he ends up coming across as a brawny Boy Scout doing a Travis Bickle impression, his particular charisma continually at odds with his role as an unhinged vigilante originally conceived of as a riff on First Blood. He’s too fresh-faced for a character who feels rooted in grizzled anguish, and the movie does him no favors by requiring the character to go off the rails so quickly. One moment John’s in Aleppo, and the next, armed Russian contractors are storming his house in D.C. after the couple returns from a barbecue. Lauren London, playing his sacrificial spouse Pam, may get more screen time as a ghostly memory than a living person — there’s a scene in which John crouches in a paroxysm of grief in the wreck of their house after her death that’s downright excruciating.
The offing of a female character to give a male lead his motivation is such a wearisome cliché that the fact that Pam is eight months pregnant feels like a detail added to juice the tragedy for greater impact. There’s a certain counterbalance in having Jodie Turner-Smith play John’s former teammate and main ally, Lieutenant Commander Karen Greer — it’s the kind of role that someone like Jeffrey Dean Morgan tends to get plunked into. But she doesn’t get much to do except try, and fail, to keep John out of trouble, a dynamic that’s its own kind of familiar. Jamie Bell, as CIA agent Robert Ritter, and Guy Pearce, as Secretary of Defense Thomas Clay, give off equally weaselly vibes to provide some ambiguity about which of the two will end up being evil. Brett Gelman is bafflingly, if amusingly, cast as a nefarious Russian baddie named Viktor Rykov. For a continent-hopping action film, Without Remorse is sparsely populated, and the other characters it does offer up make so little of an impression that it muddies which members of the two military teams John is part of over the course of the runtime die, and harder to care.
Director Stefano Sollima tries to cop the style of the Bourne movies, but his action sequences lack that kineticism — a big set piece involving a plane crashing into the ocean is so visually murky that it’s difficult to tell where the suspense is meant to be coming from. The script is credited to Will Staples and to Taylor Sheridan, who wrote the last film Sollima directed, the 2018 sequel Sicario: Day of the Soldado. Sheridan’s written one great movie, Hell or High Water, and some howlers that have been given a pass because of stylish direction. Without Remorse doesn’t have the benefit of compelling filmmaking to draw attention away from exchanges so overblown they bring an unintended levity to what’s meant to be a firmly humorless affair. “Wherever you go, death will follow,” John’s told by one of his targets, and it’s a line that haunts him even though he’s suggested to have spent most of his life shooting people for a living. “If I would have pulled out one tour earlier, my wife, my kid would still be here,” he says to Karen. “My family — you don’t get that much more death around you than that.” Dumb as a rock, or just an unquestioning Tom Clancy hero for whom the answer to a military conspiracy is more military, and more secrecy.