Specificity is everything in cinema. In fact, it’s what makes Tom Clancy endlessly adaptable. He had the greatest knack for deeply specific military writing. While the books could spend a whole page on the function and history of a type of bullet, there was another aspect there: he wrote every book as though it were a primer for a screenplay. It always seemed self-evident in the writing that these scenarios would fit the screen. Because they are so specific, there is a lot, often too much to bring into a feature runtime. When you cut them down to the bone, however, they are a cinematic literature, friendly for screenwriters to adapt.
Without Remorse is a vague kind of cinema, one that is internally uncertain about the character and merit of its story. It’s also a depressing cinema, where a big military doorstopper of a novel falls into thudding nothingness. It has the regular Clancy momentum, a story that exists as a pure force of nature, an actionable excuse for military scenarios, which do not so much as compliment one another, as play as one long stream of consciousness. Beware the bland hyper-conservative book become movie, that sands down its perspective, until it has no clear directive at all. Ambiguity cannot be a merit when a film is so wide open and stripped down to general clichés, as to just propagate the most generalized military virtue, without self-reflection or nuance.
Adapted from Clancy’s 1993 book Without Remorse, the film is chronologically the first of the Jack Ryan Universe, although it instead covers the origin story of Ryan associate John Clark. Retracing this lineage, which has already been widely expanded in film — The Hunt for Red October (1990), Patriot Games (1992), Clear and Present Danger (1994), The Sum of All Fears (2002), and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014), respectively — we otherwise find Clancy as a craftsman of technothrillers, but in this instance, he stripped all that down for a prelude revenge story about shaping a hardened killer for government work. Here, the ever-buzzworthy Michael B. Jordan plays Clark, ostensibly far too likable and enjoyable of an actor for us to really buy into in this way. It’s a simplistic joy to watch him execute these missions on screen, but is never a resonant or particularly deep one, we’re still just happy to see Michael B. Jordan becoming a psychopath with just cause, which is a very weird place to be, indeed.
This first chronological story in the Ryan-verse has been a long time coming to film. Several other renditions from other studios were attempted and amounted to squat. It’s important, for the sake of Amazon’s continuity — ideally, this film’s existence is a pitch for the wildly popular Rainbow Six property that follows it — that this film lands for a specific male demographic of viewer. It makes reasonable sense to tap director Stefano Sollima who shaped one of last year’s very best television shows in ZeroZeroZero, which is a perfect example of a hyper-specific, globe-trotting action piece that explores the cocaine trade from the inside out. It’s a miraculous show and some of the best original programming on Amazon.
It’s a different story in film. While the lengthy book probably could use an eight-episode order like Amazon’s own Jack Ryan series (see: our reviews for season one and two) and the aforementioned ZeroZeroZero, it has to fit an equally large story into significantly less space. It buckles under the weight of ambition, opting for empty but visually clear actioning, without much connective tissue. Scenes happen and spur Mr. Clark onto the next encounter. The film has softened the edges of this conservative cardboard cutout of a character but failed to insert anything in their place. Reliably sturdy screenwriter Taylor Sheridan has been brought in for rewrites of the film, but even his naturalistic know-how does not reflect itself properly in the film. Sollima and Sheridan last worked together on 2018’s Sicario: Day of the Soldado, a messy sequel that could not effectively follow up the great Denis Villeneuve film that came before it. They have just about as much luck in this outing, which is to say, not very much.
Without Remorse is without specificity. It plods through a series of action pieces and setups with frothy emotional appeals to the audience. All of its appeals are a kind of manipulation and none arrive with the same expert design as Sollima’s ZeroZeroZero. There are brief flashes of the film it could be: the initial raid of Clark’s home (now a John Wick stereotype) where Jordan feels primed for the role; or a satisfying rooftop action set-piece that understands the characters relationships to their tactical environment. Beneath the weight of its lineage, which includes some of the more respected films in this category, Without Remorse suffers from never being specific enough to create any distinct impression. However a director frames it, every Clancy story will remain a conservative manifesto. Troubling politics are so deeply ingrained into the material of the work that there is no way around them also being the sum result of an adaptation. It remains the kind of story where a top government operative fights off his foreign adversaries. Whether in Vietnam or at home in the urban drug trade, it sees no difference between these enemies, demonizing drug trade and prostitution while lifting up government and war heroes. While Without Remorse tries to sanitize these elements for a modern audience, in doing so, it has still signed an endorsement of Clancy’s jingoistic worldview.