During a classified mission in Syria, Navy SEAL John Kelly (Michael B. Jordan) seizes a massive stash of illicit weapons amidst heavy fire — and barely escapes with his life. He returns home to Washington, D.C. to face an even worse hell.
Russian operatives systemically hunt down and assassinate the few members of his unit who survived the Syrian ordeal. When they reach Kelly’s house, only his pregnant wife lay sleeping in their bed. Hearing the intruders, Kelly defensively shoots into the shadows, taking out several men … but not before his wife and daughter in the womb are taken from him.
Waking up in a military hospital, he quickly demands one thing of his superior officer: “All I need is a name. Give me a name!” So begins “Without Remorse” from director Stefano Sollima (“Sicario 2”) which premiered last week on Prime Video. If the set-up of a rogue agent out for revenge seems familiar, maybe you too have seen the action-thriller films that clearly inspired it.
Backed by Paramount and Skydance, the Hollywood shingles behind Tom Cruise’s “Mission: Impossible” franchise, “Without Remorse” gives viewers a remix of 90’s Jack Ryan flicks, Jack Bauer “24” heroism, and some Jason Bourne intrigue for good measure. Some hardcore action fans will surely cheer a viewing option that evades comic-book superheroes and flashy set pieces in the style of “John Wick.”
Yet, even with charismatic leading man Jordan, two memorable action scenes that show where they spent the eight-figure budget, and a bold third-act plot twist, “Without Remorse” ends up being less than the sum of its parts. Audiences have seen this before, and usually on a grander scale.
Filmmakers sought to ground this action flick in reality rather than invent a new James Bond-style franchise, yet some real-world context comes across as shallow and unrealistic.
(minor spoilers ahead)
Mirroring aspects of fictional spies like Ethan “Mission Impossible” Hunt, Navy SEAL Kelly carries the film as the exceptional agent-marksman-fighter who can be implicitly trusted.
Following his near-death injuries, his superior officer Karen Greer (Jodie Turner-Smith) implores the Secretary of Defense: “It is my opinion that Senior Chief Kelly is not in the right state of mind to be in the field right now.” But anyone who has seen Jason Bourne or Jack Bauer on-screen knows this similar hero won’t be sidelined.
Reportedly, Jordan did most of his own stunts which enables action scenes to proceed efficiently without cuts. It reflects director Sollima’s approach to the story. “Reality, I feel, is much more interesting than fiction,” he said in a recent interview. “I don’t like superheroes (and) action detached from reality. I like heroes, a human being that is pushed over his limit.”
To their credit — Jordan is also a producer on the film — two highlight action scenes emerge organically from the plot rather than the far too typical action-flick contrivance for something cool to just “happen.” In the first of several “off-book” actions, Kelly stalks the Russian Embassy and maneuvers to interrogate a key figure. The two men face-off in a burning vehicle, lending this sequence a ticking-clock urgency.
The other standout set-piece occurs when the Kelly-led team heads to Russia on a covert flight, which comes under fire and crashes into the ocean. With Kelly submerged underwater and struggling to save his fellow agents, it has a visceral tension that signals the elaborate practical effects at play here, with CGI kept to a minimum. A later sequence using similar techniques shocks viewers with its sudden turn.
Isolated scenes in “Without Remorse” clearly work, making it a decent option for background viewing. Yet the film lacks grounding in depicting consequences and military chain-of-command while production design feels cheaper than it should. A Navy SEAL executing an embassy official with multiple witnesses outside the D.C. airport would not likely go quickly back out into the field for starters.
The film features an incredibly involved secretary of defense, played by Guy Pearce, who personally assigns Kelly to his mission. It’s strange to see a man of such an elevated position show up in various claustrophobic rooms to issue directives.
As to production design, compare the film’s opening depiction of bombed-out Syria, clearly shot on a studio backlot, with the detailed scope of gritty Netflix military drama “Mosul.” While significant portions of this movie, ostensibly set in Russia, were filmed in Germany, viewers would barely know it from how locations are used. Action scenes often occur in poorly lit hallways and back alleys. This might reflect an attempt at realism — the director previously worked in TV news — but if viewers cannot see much, it doesn’t connect.
Renowned military spy-genre author Tom Clancy released his blockbuster novel “Without Remorse” in 1993, and within months the film rights were snatched up. It took almost 30 years for this movie to release, with a script little resembling the original story (Jordan’s character — given the alias “John Clark” by the end — was previously played decades ago by Willem Dafoe and Liev Schreiber).
Specifically depicting covert missions, recent Oscar winners “Zero Dark Thirty” and even “Argo” show how it’s possible to balance applicable real-world military context with the demands of action-thriller tropes. Truth be told, even Jordan’s villainous turn as Erik Killmonger in the superhero blockbuster “Black Panther” carries the residue of real-world geopolitical conflicts better than this Clancy-inspired flick.
In a sequel teaser that closes “Without Remorse,” undercover spy Clark expresses his intent to coalesce international agents into the counter-terrorist unit “Rainbow Six” — known in popular culture as a best-selling video game franchise. With this, producers tip their hand that perhaps gamers were the movie’s target audience all along.
By ending two hours of supposedly grounded action by teasing an Avengers-style team-up, some confused viewers will doubtless feel a little remorse.
Rated R for violence, “Without Remorse” is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.