For proof that Michael B. Jordan is a movie star, look no further than his mastery of potentially worn-out genres: He can work a courtroom drama, an underdog sports picture, and even play both sides of the superhero aisle. Though Jordan is also a terrific actor, it’s that star power that makes him such a strong candidate for the persistent cinematic world of Tom Clancy. Adaptations of Clancy books, typically focusing on his signature everyman-slash-doctorate CIA hero Jack Ryan, often serve as redundant proving grounds for leading men who have actually already proven themselves. Without Remorse leaves Jack Ryan to his current TV series and establishes yet another rebooted ClancyVerse, with Jordan playing John Clark, a special-ops Navy SEAL fixer previously portrayed by Willem Dafoe (opposite Harrison Ford’s Ryan) and Liev Schreiber (opposite Ben Affleck’s).
Ah, but there was a time before John Clark was John Clark, and was known only by the humble moniker John Kelly (not to be confused with John “Jack” Ryan). It’s Kelly who opens the movie on a mission in Syria, listlessly staged but dangerous enough to reverberate well after he’s returned home. Back in the U.S., members of Kelly’s team are tracked down and murdered by a Russian hit squad for their interference. At Kelly’s house, the Russians make a series of terrible, predictable mistakes: They kill Kelly’s pregnant wife, Pam (Lauren London), and they leave Kelly alive, albeit just barely.
This blatantly gruesome plot turn is both the peak of the movie’s shamelessness and a justification for hiring Jordan—beyond the confirmation of his movie-star bona fides. He’s a performer who knows how to reveal moments of pure hurt amidst feats of strength, carrying around his pain like a bruise on a muscled arm. As Kelly recovers from his life-threatening injuries and sets about the business of exacting his revenge, Jordan gives the character a Method commitment to his personal mission—dousing himself in alcohol and urine for just a few minutes of playing drunk; setting a car aflame, then climbing in to interrogate its occupant—that feels as much like a steely request for psychological help as an exercise of his mercenary skills.
Occasionally, Without Remorse methodically sets up an action sequence that matches Jordan’s ferocity, as when the agent, imprisoned for a major crime, draws the riot squad into his cell for a brawl. Much of the movie, though, takes its cues from that dull opening sequence, a grim performance of visceral action played out in low-contrast shadows. Director Stefano Sollima is an old hand at flattening visual foreboding into bloodthirsty yet bloodless spectacle; in addition to tony TV crime dramas, he made the Sicario sequel Day Of The Soldado. Just like he did there, Sollima draws his action in clean, straightforward lines that don’t lead much of anywhere. When in doubt, the movie seems to think, simply up the brutality. Yet the movie’s attempts at ruthless pulp manipulation don’t land; cruelly offing a character whose entire personality is “pregnant” is a cheap bid for John Wick stakes.
Theoretically, it’s a good idea to position Jordan as the new center of Clancy’s stodgy white-male universe—which in the movies usually include wise Black mentors who inspire the hero, then die. Freed of this dynamic, Without Remorse only suggests that the filmmakers thought they could recast their way to glory. They certainly haven’t done the work of exploring John Clark’s role as a Black man in a compromised system—or even much of his backstory, despite the origin-story trappings. “We fought for what America could be,” he says at one point by way of resonant speechifying. It’s a deeply strange sentiment coming from a black-ops military operative mucking around in Syria, and maybe the most disingenuous excuse for commentary since any given episode of The Falcon And The Winter Soldier.
This po-faced boilerplate does match the general tone of Without Remorse, which has been rewritten from its 1993 source material to more smoothly incorporate all of the predictable loyalty switch-offs and not-so-hidden motivations (is someone trying to… use tensions between nations to instigate a war?!) that have become even more familiar in the decades since. Sollima aims for a kind of hushed, ruthless streamlining of yesterday’s vacation-house paperbacks, and instead achieves a watchable vacancy where the thrills should be. The many good actors surrounding Jordan, from Jamie Bell (a shady CIA officer) to Guy Pearce (Secretary Of Defense) to Jodie Turner-Smith (as Karen Greer—niece of the James Earl Jones character from previous Jack Ryan adventures), feel like animatronics running at low power to conserve energy. Are they saving themselves for the sequel? The movie reaches a late-breaking nadir in its very own mid-credits Avengers moment, where the newly rechristened John Clark sleepily recruits himself for a new team. No one seems surprised or excited, not even Jordan. The seething physicality of his star power can’t be faked, but the would-be franchise built around it sure can.