My wife and I recently watched Without Remorse. It is a rather pedestrian actioner, elevated by its lead and supporting cast, with acceptable but not innovative action scenes.
Without Remorse takes place in the Tom Clancy-verse (for lack of a better term), or, perhaps more precisely, uses characters and ideas from the Jack Ryan-verse. John Clarke was a major supporting character in a collection of the Jack Ryan novels, and has previously been portrayed on the screen by Willem Dafoe in Clear and Present Danger. I liked Dafoe’s turn as the character, but in that case, he was a grizzled special warfare operator who had spent long years in the covert action community, whereas Without Remorse is an origin story. (I completely forgot about Liev Schreiber as John Clark in the adaptation of Sum of All Fears, and now I need to re-watch that movie, as Schreiber tends to elevate anything he is in)
Michael B. Jordan is the perfect actor to play John Kelly/John Clarke. His physical presence on the screen is magnetic, and his charisma is undeniable. He makes Kelly’s heroics believable, and he projects quiet intensity in every scene. You never forget how driven this character is.
The supporting cast, including the always wonderful Guy Pearce, is solid. Granted, I think we are supposed to feel something for the teams Kelly operates with, but that just never materializes—not because of the performances, but because of what the actors are given to work with.
This is the basic problem of Without Remorse: pedestrian writing. This is a paint-by-numbers actioner—a revenge, spec ops thriller. There is very little innovative here—more on that later. Nothing exciting or new. There were no unexpected turns. And I would argue it was a mistake to take such a personal story and try to make it have global significance. I have never read the source novel—I had dropped out of the Jack Ryan series by then as it became more jingoistic and less tethered to reality—but I can think of a dozen ways to do this story without making it about saving the world.
The one innovative aspect of the writing was creating a female partner for which there was no intended romantic chemistry. These are two friends—yes, one is the commanding officer, but at the core, they are friends—whose relationship is built on mutual respect, trust, and exposure to danger. Greer is not glamorous. That’s not to say she’s not attractive, just that, like Michael B. Jordan’s Kelly, Jodie Turner-Smith’s Greer is portrayed as capable, competent, and incredibly dangerous, though, unsurprisingly, no one is as dangerous as Kelly, given that this is his movie.
However, we have to use the desperately tired and lazy trope of the murdered wife (girlfriend, lover, whatever) in order to motivate Kelly. Can we please stop going to this well? I am honestly not surprised, given the pretty bog-standard story line, but I just groaned when they introduced Kelly’s pregnant wife. Pretty sure having a team member killed or even just being fucked over by the CIA (yet again? probably yet again) would be enough to motivate Kelly to spectacular efforts. And to suggest that the only motivator for revenge for a man is the death of a woman ignores a wide corpus of literature (historical and international, if not in contemporary English) and suggests that the relationship men form with each other cannot be as strong as bonds of family.
All that having been written, the story here exists only to move from one scene to the next. Again, this is a pedestrian actioner, so the story isn’t the point. I mean, I think it should be. I think it should be as strong as the action. That doesn’t necessarily mean it needs to be complicated or overwrought. This is something that seems to stymie most big-budget actioners. Just give us better connecting scenes that help illuminate the hero’s personality and provide the character arc. That’s all we need. When you have great actors and a competent director—or competent actors and a great director—they will do the rest. I think the non-action scenes in Without Remorse are watchable specifically because of the performances, but they use recycled tropes in the place of real character insight.
In the end, this is an acceptable actioner, one that I think someone interested in spec ops or espionage action-thrillers will find an enjoyable diversion. Go in expecting tired action storytelling with half-decent action perpetrated by a charismatic lead surrounded by good actors, and you’ll find this a pretty good investment of 100+ minutes.
I tentatively recommend Without Remorse, and give it 3.5 hidden arsenals of our 5.