Here we go again. You know the recent trend in blockbusters—the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or the action movies from which its stars draw additional paychecks, like Extraction—in which the narrative feints toward the idea that the American government is bad? This isn’t a new thing; the ’70s paranoia thrillers and the ’90s resurgence of them have long primed us for this conversation. And of course, there’s our reality, which is that the American government loves war. Loves it! Does our pop culture fetishize anything more consistently than it does violent combat in a foreign (read: brown) country? So we get these movies that follow an established pattern of “American government does something awful, and the only people who can fix it are people trained by the American military,” which is the kind of half-hearted message that doesn’t really say anything about imperialism or militarism or globalism.
I say all this because I don’t know what I expected from Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse. Clancy’s 1993 novel, from which the film is adapted, takes place during the Vietnam War and places U.S. Navy SEAL John Kelly in the middle of a web of tangled interests between the United States, Vietnam, and the Soviet Union. He falls in love with a reformed prostitute. He targets inner-city drug dealers. He fights the Vietnamese and the Soviets. He has a very special set of skills that result in a slew of bodies left in his wake. I wasn’t sure how this film version of Without Remorse would approach such dated material, but shame on me. I should have known! I should have paid closer attention to the crew on this thing, and I should have known.
Executive produced by and starring Michael B. Jordan, and directed by Stefano Sollima and co-written by Taylor Sheridan (reuniting after the absolute garbage fire that was Sicario 2: Day of the Soldado), Without Remorse feels a lot like that movie. Perhaps you recall: Sicario 2 had the general premise that the American government has to be ruthless and potentially do illegal stuff because the Mexican cartels are so bad that the only way to stand up to them is to be even worse. Oh, and Muslim terrorists are making their way across the Mexican/U.S. border. The Islamophobia, whew.
Sollima and Sheridan apply similar reasoning here. First, they slough off every element of the original plot from the novel Without Remorse except for the fridged wife. Then, Sollima and Sheridan cycle through all the same beats those other “America bad, shrug emoji” movies do, barely offering anything unique or singular. Jordan anchors this with his customary intensity, but he lacks his Black Panther spark or Just Mercy sincerity. This is ferociousness with nothing behind it. Is it progress if we’re making the same blandly propagandistic movies but they star Black people instead of white people? Is it fulfilling storytelling if a movie so fully backs off its central argument that its ending is essentially a moral collapse? Or is Without Remorse just a way for Amazon to expand the Jack Ryan franchise? Hopefully you can imagine my hard stare!
Without Remorse begins in Syria, because of course it does. (Love when an international humanitarian disaster and endless war becomes window dressing for a corny action movie! I’m sure the millions of Syrians who have died and been displaced are super pumped about that.) While in Aleppo, Navy SEAL Senior Chief John Kelly (Jordan) and his unit’s Lt. Commander Karen Greer (Jodie Turner-Smith) receive a new mission from CIA operative Robert Ritter (Jamie Bell): to retrieve a CIA asset being held hostage by hostile Syrian troops. There’s just one little complication: When the crew does save this man, Kelly realizes he’s actually Russian. The building they just broke this man out of? Not a CIA safe house but a Russian arms depot. “That’s the job, sweetheart,” Ritter smugly says when Kelly raises his concerns, and I mean, Ritter’s not wrong, is he? If you’re still trying to find nobility and morality in the U.S. military post-Sept. 11, 2001, well … I’m not sure what to say to that!
Three months later, the mission catches up to them. The men who served alongside Kelly are being assassinated: a box van mows down one man while he’s getting his mail; gunmen ambush another while he’s sitting in traffic. And after they break into Kelly’s house and murder his pregnant wife (the only thing you will learn about this woman throughout the entire 110-minute runtime is that her name was Pam), Kelly goes rogue. His need for revenge tangles him up with Ritter, whom Kelly increasingly thinks is dirty; reunites him with Greer, the only person he can trust; and puts him in the orbit of Secretary of Defense Thomas Clay (Guy Pearce).
There’s a whole convoluted story that follows involving Russia and “foreign attacks on U.S. soil” that, again, brings to mind Sicario 2. Most simply, I will say the plot is some real Cold War-era tediousness that doesn’t do anything to address what kind of threat Russia poses now. Once you put the tortuous narrative aside, what else is there? Turner-Smith gives a very self-assured performance as Greer, and she and Jordan convince us of their characters’ years of history. Before Without Remorse devolves into international-ops territory in its back half, Jordan’s laser-focused mission for revenge results in some pretty sick scenes: a well-choreographed car crash, a gritty prison-cell fight that plays like Jordan auditioning for a Gareth Evans project, a plane-crash scene that transports the opening scene of Inception underwater. I cannot deny that those disparate scenes are engaging enough, but do they add up to a worthwhile whole? They do not.
Worst of all? This movie casts Colman Domingo and then gives him, I generously estimate, three minutes of screen time. Amid a multitude of sins committed by the aggressively unimpactful Without Remorse, that might be the most unforgivable.
You want to get into spoiler territory? Let’s do it.
DO NOT PROCEED UNLESS YOU WANT THOSE SWEET SPOILERS
Take a shot every time someone says “patriot!” Turns out that Russians weren’t attacking Kelly’s team—at least, not on their own. Secretary Clay was pulling the strings, organizing Russian attacks in the U.S. and then sending Kelly, Greer, and an American team to Russia for revenge so that the attacks could escalate toward war. He basically decided to sacrifice Kelly’s team for the greater good so that the country could unite together against Russia, which is a hilarious premise because we just lived through the Trump presidency and no one gave a shit that Russians were interfering all the time. Nothing happened to anyone! No. One. Cares. Why not just be real with it and acknowledge that a solid percentage of Americans are already united in hating the Middle East? I mean, there’s a reason this movie starts in Syria—it’s a very specific kind of dog whistle.
Anyway, here’s what Clay says to John before he’s killed:
“The problem today, John, is that half this country thinks the other half is its enemy because they have no one else to fight. So we gave them a real enemy. One with the power to threaten their lives, their freedoms. Freedoms you take for granted. And it works, John, it works. You just wouldn’t die.”
The funny thing about that quote: Which “half” of America are Sheridan and co-writer Will Staples referring to as being at fault? Hm.
So! Killing Clay helps John work through his trauma, I guess, because earlier in the movie, he had been thinking about retiring from the U.S. military. After Pam is murdered, he says to Greer:
“I’m the one who went to Hell and did their dirty work. We served a country that didn’t love us back because we believed in what it could be. We fought for what America could be. But they crossed the line. They brought their war to my house. They took my wife. They took my baby girl before she got a chance to take a breath. That contract is broken. They’re gonna play by my rules now. I’ll show them what a pawn can do to a king.”
Ahem: You know who else brings war to people’s houses and kills innocent women and children? AMERICA.
To speak to the actual sentiment of Kelly’s speech, I can see the Da 5 Bloods of it, and I can sympathize with the idea of veterans realizing that they were misled and misused. However, then Without Remorse undoes all of that with a mid-credits scene. We’ve already established by the end of the movie that the real villain was not actually Russians, but Secretary Clay. Call coming from inside the house, etc. Yet to ensure that this film crosses over with Amazon’s Jack Ryan series (as in Clancy’s novels), a mid-credits scene shows Kelly and Ritter meeting up, with Kelly—now code name John Clark—announcing his plans for a “multinational counterterrorist team, made up of the US, UK, hand-selected NATO personnel,” with the “full support of the national intelligence services.”
… Why though? The preceding 140 or so minutes just established that the American government is the evil here! That they murdered John’s family! But now Clark is saying “I’ve been thinking about what happened, and about how it could happen again,” as if terrorists killed his family and not some old white dude pulling the strings. The disconnect between the movie Without Remorse pretended to be and then how it pivots back into familiar “the American government is bad, but not that bad” familiarity is wild indeed.
I’m honestly not sure what made me laugh more. Was it this final twist to ensure that Amazon can take on more Clancy material? Was it when Ritter says that “the CIA isn’t exactly known” for being “real creative?” They sure knew how to brainstorm when it came to overthrowing governments in many countries, not just Iran and Chile, the ones to which they have admitted! Or was it this: That for a movie about the evils of the American government and the brutality of the American military, Amazon is using drones to deliver promotional tie-ins?
Elite Drone Squad Activated… pic.twitter.com/o3CyRcXAxW— Michael B. Jordan (@michaelb4jordan) April 26, 2021
It really boggles the mind. Using a tool of the U.S. government’s expanded-under-Obama, expanded-even-further-under-Trump drone-warfare program to drop off prizes to watchers of a movie that imitates an imperialism-questioning posture while ultimately reaffirming its loyalty to two of the greatest evils of our time: the CIA and the interwoven cinematic universe. Cool, cool. Taylor Sheridan keeps making it harder and harder for me to keep loving Hell or High Water, huh?
Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse is streaming on Prime Video as of April 29.
Image sources (in order of posting): Epk.tv/Amazon Studios, Epk.tv/Amazon Studios, Epk.tv/Amazon Studios