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Lacking interesting aesthetic and relying on a tired trope, ‘Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse’ falls flat

UPDATED: Thu., April 29, 2021

Michael B. Jordan stars in “Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse.”  (Nadja Klier/Paramount Pictures/Amazon Studios)
Michael B. Jordan stars in “Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse.” (Nadja Klier/Paramount Pictures/Amazon Studios)
By Katie Walsh Tribune News Service

Including “Tom Clancy’s” in the title for the film “Without Remorse” is a direct signal flare for fans of his Jack Ryan character who has been depicted many times on screen before. Clancy’s 1993 bestseller “Without Remorse” is an origin story for one of the Ryan-verse characters, John Clark, who has already been played by Willem Dafoe and Liev Schrieber, but now, Michael B. Jordan takes on the origin story of Clark, nee Kelly, a highly trained Navy SEAL whose life is drastically altered by violence.

Directed by Stefano Sollima, who helmed “Sicario: Day of the Soldado,” and written by Taylor Sheridan and Will Staples, the script is a loose adaptation and update of the book. The Vietnam setting is out, and Russia is in as the big bad because everything old is new again. What remains is John’s thirst for vengeance, a white hot rage engine revved by the murder of his wife, Pam (Lauren London).

The Dead Wife is a well-trodden movie trope, a one-stop shop for screenwriters to add instant pathos and motivation, plus justification for the body count. In the cinematic world of violent, vengeful men, what is a wife if not dead, merely a memory to kill for in a film?

John has a simple quest, to avenge Pam’s murder. But in doing so, he uncovers a web of cynical political maneuvering, orchestrated for optics, headlines and cable news talking points. This conspiracy behind the story feels like a 1970s paranoid political thriller, but Sollima is no Alan J. Pakula. Rather than a slick, lean or even interesting aesthetic, “Without Remorse” is brutal and muddy, the actors loaded down with military gear, thumping around and thumping each other, shooting at unseen enemies in dusty, dimly lit rooms.

The characters, whose names we barely know, blurt vast swaths of script exposition in boardrooms, bathrooms and high-speed vehicles. Humanizing moments feel pandering. Aside from a few nifty shots and stunts, as well as Jordan’s biceps, the movie is an eyesore, looking more like “Call of Duty” than anything truly cinematic (though video games are indeed looking more like movies these days).

The action is rote, the plot predictable, the acting serviceable. But the film takes on an extra layer of meaning with a Black actor in the lead role and a Black actress, Jodie Turner-Smith, playing John’s closest ally, Karen. Race is never spoken about openly, but, within the subtext, there is a, perhaps unintentional, new significance.

Centering the story on a Black SEAL and his family destroyed by state-sanctioned gun violence feels especially raw and urgent at this moment. When higher-ups at the CIA decline to investigate the murder of a Black woman shot in her bed, it resonates outside the film.

As a plot device, it’s John’s personal motivation for violence and vengeance. As a story beat in a 2021 film, it lends an inadvertent social relevance in the wake of the police shooting of Breonna Taylor and the Black Lives Matter movement.

When John and Karen talk to each other about the CIA betrayal, it’s in statements laden with meaning about their roles as Black service members lamenting that they “fell for what America could be.”

As John imagines playing by his own rules, “what a pawn could do to a king,” it becomes a revenge fantasy of sorts not just for him, but for who he represents. The reality he discovers is that everyone is a pawn of sorts, kings cloaked not in armor but the wool tweed of bureaucracy. It’s cynical but, in a way, apt.

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