Some of the hallmarks of a good Tom Clancy story include international espionage, a stout-hearted and patriotic protagonist, a good mystery that runs throughout, and cool details of military or government inner workings that can only come from deep research.
Historically, when Hollywood uses one of the late author’s novels as a blueprint for movie scripts, things go pretty well, and we get excellent movies like The Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger, and to a lesser extent, The Sum of All Fears.
When the big movie machine, of which Netflix and Amazon Studios are now certainly a part, decides it doesn’t want to use one of Clancy’s many novels as source material and goes with an original story for his characters instead, you get Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit.
Despite having the same title as a landmark Clancyverse novel, the new Amazon original movie, Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse — call it TCWR — bears almost no resemblance to the book. So, you won’t spoil anything for yourself by reading the novel. Unfortunately, the movie also has more in common with Shadow Recruit than Patriot Games.
I had a lot of hope for this one, and maybe my expectations were a bit too high. The Jack Ryan TV show, also from Amazon, is pretty decent and successfully made the dude from The Office into a certified badass. Without Remorse is probably my favorite Clancy novel, and the movie has Michael B. Jordan in the lead role as the author’s most kickass character ever, John Kelly/Clark. The dude tore it up in the two Creed movies and in Black Panther. I didn’t think it could miss.
No doubt, the action bits in TCWR are pretty awesome, and there’s a lot of them. Jordan is a natural fit for a physical, gunplay-heavy action role. The question becomes, are the action scenes awesome enough to warrant sitting through the rest? Maybe. Maybe not.
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD
For those who are unfamiliar, there are two major protagonists who appear in most of Tom Clancy’s novels: Jack Ryan and John Clark. Clark is the more violent and direct of the two. The novel Without Remorse is his origin story, where we find out he was once John Kelly, a US Navy SEAL who served in Vietnam and changed his name after faking his own death with some CIA help.
Clark has actually made it to the big screen twice before but always as a supporting character in a Ryan story. In Clear and Present Danger, he was played by Willem Dafoe, and by Liev Schreiber in The Sum of All Fears.
Save for the character’s name and the title, there’s really nothing from the novel retained here. It’s almost a sin to put Clancy’s name on it. It’s best to think of it like the “Tom Clancy’s“ brand name that Ubisoft uses to publish video games.
The book takes place in 1970 and much of the plot is connected to the ongoing Vietnam War, so unless the movie was to be a period piece, the story would need to be brought into the 21st century, and that’s fine and totally necessary. But they threw out everything.
In the book, Kelly is a loner widower from the start, his wife killed in a car accident some time ago. He possesses a deep sense of honor and integrity along with a wild streak, but he also has a lot of simmering rage inside and, unlike Ryan, is totally cool with personally torturing a guy to a slow death inside a pressurization chamber for divers. The plot is layered, with Kelly waging a guerrilla-style war against a drug gang in Baltimore that’s responsible for torturing and killing his one-time drug-mule girlfriend, while also preparing and executing a prisoner-of-war rescue in Southeast Asia for the CIA.
The setup for TCWR, on the other hand, is pretty cliche. You’ve seen this all before. Kelly is not just a SEAL, but an uber SEAL. We know this because the dialogue tells us.
When not deployed, he lives in a mostly idyllic suburban home and is about to start a family with a very pregnant wife. The day after an obligatory “we all made it home safe” party, a bunch of bad guys start cruising around in a super inconspicuous windowless rape van, assassinating Kelly’s SEAL team members at their homes (is this the beginning of Commando?). Their last stop is Kelly’s house in the middle of the night. Despite his best efforts, they sneak in and unceremoniously shoot his pregnant wife in her sleep with silencers that are far too silent.
The ensuing shootout leaves Kelly with a handful of bullet wounds, a shattered life, and a mystery to solve.
The movie is pretty effective to this point. The language is super tame and the violence is a little bloodless (I assume for the desired rating), but it’s also a bit shocking in its brutality. I was buckling myself in for a ride. The assault on Kelly’s home is likewise tense and surprisingly vicious.
When he gets out of rehab, Kelly visits his empty home, does some rage screaming (cue sun-soaked memory of his wife smiling and lying in a grassy field — no really, they do this), and pulls a dry bag full of gear from its hiding place in the basement water-heater tank.
I was all ready for him to start hunting dudes down one by one and go all Man on Fire on their asses, and the movie fooled me into thinking that’s exactly where it was going.
Kelly poses as a drunk homeless guy to recon some Russian bad guys (oh yeah, Russians are the go-to bad guys again, ain’t that nostalgic?), and then interrogates one of them inside a car after dousing it with gas and setting it afire. Yes, he uses a Zippo.
I was into it and thought the movie was falling more in line with the book. But no. It wasn’t.
Kelly gets out of the burning car after murdering the Russians inside and promptly gets arrested — because he just killed two people and set a car on fire outside a fucking airport.
From then on, he and the entire plot are on rails right to the finish, and Kelly becomes a blunt instrument who just keeps reacting to situations and allowing himself to be pointed in different directions by Lt. Cmdr. Karen Greer (Jodie Turner-Smith) or the CIA before finally going solo to pull off some Rambo/John Wick army-of-one nonsense near the end. Normally, I would mean that as a compliment.
What starts as an intimate and visceral personal revenge story abruptly turns into a half-assed globe-trotting Mission Impossible-esque movie with the death of Kelly’s wife on the back burner and tenuously linked to a false-flag geopolitical crisis engineered by a corrupt politician for the long-term financial well-being of the military-industrial complex that also weakly and hurriedly comments on the current political polarization in America in a spasm of final-act exposition. WTF, movie?
Some plot elements in TCWR are just plain wonky, and the moral justifications for what the characters do are extremely murky at times. I didn’t get the whole prison thing. Did Kelly mean to be sent there? We have to assume so. So, if the feds hadn’t sprung him, what the hell was his plan after very publicly murdering two people and setting a car on fire in front of a fucking airport?
As for motivation, one minute, Kelly is giving an impassioned speech to Greer about how he fought for a country half his life that doesn’t care about him, but a couple of scenes later, he just signs up for a mission with the CIA.
The action scenes are where TCWR shines. They’re frenetic and clean with decent gun handling from the actors (though nobody reloads, like, ever) and solid stunts and choreography, especially in the fight scenes. There’s a definite edge to the violence, and many scenes seem to effortlessly and naturally create huge amounts of tension when they want to. The RPG in the hallway scene was baller, and the plane crash sequence was nerve-wracking.
It feels like an extremely talented and dynamic director handled the action scenes, while a key grip on a lot of Nyquil took the reins for everything else. Why are there so many goddamn scenes filmed by a motionless camera with the actors reciting their dialogue while also frozen in place and avoiding all gestures whatsoever? Why are there so many weird pauses? Why?!
This movie is either going 5 mph or screaming at 120 mph, but it never finds a cruising speed. Even though the action scenes are solid and often intense, there’s precious little tying them all together.
The dialogue-heavy sequences in between shootouts, prison fights, and badass plane crashes are tough to get through and riddled with ham-fisted chess metaphors — both Jordan and Turner-Smith visibly and painfully struggle with the clunky lines in places. But, for all the talking, there’s really nothing one could call character development.
As for the kind of military realism and attention to detail present in Clancy’s novels, it’s just as absent here as it is in most other Clancy movie adaptations, but in this case, there’s nothing to take its place. The movie doesn’t really focus directly on gear, guns, or tactics.
Jordan and Turner-Smith do great with what they are given and they clearly put a lot of preparation and work into their roles. It really shows. In particular, Jordan shows off the impressive range that the Creed films made him known for, and proves he can definitely be a modern action star outside the ring and outside the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The worst thing about TCWR is undoubtedly how seriously it takes itself. There is no humor here at all, not even background humor, and that’s a shame. I’m all for serious action movies, just like I’m all for dumb action movies. The Harrison Ford Clancy movies certainly weren’t laugh riots, nor was Red October, but there was enough dry humor in them at least for the characters to feel human, so you care about them a bit, and so the stakes matter. Even Platoon, Black Hawk Down, and Lone Survivor have funny moments. Aside from a couple of weak quips among SEALs at the very beginning, TCWR has none of that.
There’s no fun here.
This is a dour, somewhat timid military-themed revenge film so completely up its own ass that when the needlessly convoluted plot reveals whodunnit, you already know — and worse, you don’t really care.
Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse premieres on Amazon Prime Video Friday, April 30.