Michael B. Jordan skillfully plays a compelling, unsettling anti-hero in a well-made revenger/military conspiracy action film that sharply diverges from its Tom Clancy source material.
John Kelly (Michael B. Jordan) is a soldier, specifically an American Navy SEAL. He is very, very good at his job, and he believes in the promise of his nation. He is also getting ready to muster out, to lay down arms so that he can do right by his beloved wife Pam (Lauren London) and their soon-to-be-born daughter. John is in love, excited and a little uncertain – moving on from active duty service is going to be as significant a change as becoming a father will be. Whatever comes next, his life will not be what it has been.
And then all of that goes out the window when assassins break into the Kellys’ home, murder Pam in her sleep, and come very close to killing John. But even badly wounded, John Kelly is not someone to take lightly. He turns the tables on the cut-throats, killing all but two. One is shot by his own allies, apparently at his own request. The other escapes.
Against all odds, John survives. Physically, at least. Mentally, he has been shattered. The John Kelly who unexpectedly wakes up from a coma is not the John Kelly who lived until that night. He wants the name of the last man. He needs the name of the last man. His commanding officer and friend, Lt. Commander Karen Greer (Jodie Turner-Smith), does not want him to lose himself in oblivion. But she does not want Pam’s murder and the murders of two of her team by the same killers to be ignored in the name of pragmatism.
Meanwhile, a shady CIA officer named Ritter (Jamie Bell) is looking for a way to keep his head above water as the simple rapidly becomes the complex. And Secretary of Defense Thomas Clay (Guy Pearce) sees an opportunity. John Kelly is a brilliant soldier. He is creative, he is cunning, and he is relentless. His hunt for revenge is as much an opportunity to protect America’s future as it is a personal quest for violent catharsis.
Without Remorse is a darn good movie. Jordan does strong work as John Kelly, both dramatically and as an action performer. Turner-Smith and Bell ably acquit themselves as differing foils to Jordan. Turner-Smith’s Greer is empathetic and pragmatic where Kelly is focused on revenge to the point of self-destruction. Bell’s Ritter is a big-picture-above-all-else slimeball who ends up facing a violent, paradigm-shifting event of his own. Director Stefano Sollima (Sicario: Day of the Soldado) and writers Taylor Sheridan (Wind River) and Will Staples (Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3) craft a tight, gripping conspiracy picture with strong action, some welcome eeriness, and a fascinating relationship to its source material – the work of the late Tom Clancy.
Jordan and Sollima build a stillness into John Kelly that makes for intriguing character beats and excellent action. Dramatically, Jordan uses it to dig into Kelly’s unease with his own survival. He is not trying to get himself killed, and he will not leave Pam unavenged, but Kelly does not particularly want to be alive. His single focus for most of Without Remorse is revenge. Kelly’s unyielding commitment actively unsettles Greer and their fellow SEALS. This is best seen in a bravura sequence where Kelly dives into a rapidly sinking plane to retrieve a piece of mission-critical gear, much to the alarm of Greer and her team. Despite the peril, shock, and terror, Kelly will not stop. He cannot stop. Not until it is done.
Sollima compounds the disquiet Jordan generates with two brief, well-placed dream sequences. Neither crosses into full-blown surrealism, but they cement Without Remorse‘s distinct and welcome spooky streak. John Kelly is, in a way, a revenant.
Jordan and Sollima build a stillness into John Kelly that makes for intriguing character beats and excellent action.
But while Kelly’s metaphorically one of the walking dead, Jordan’s far from stiff during Without Remorse‘s action scenes. When Kelly goes to work, Jordan’s stillness becomes precision. He moves exactly where he needs to and when he needs to, and the results are both clear and thrilling.
When Kelly needs to fight off a band of armored prison guards, he soaks himself, his shirt, and the floor of the cell with water. When the guards charge, he lets them come to him – their own reckless momentum leading them right into the trap he’s laid.
Later, when a mission to capture the assassin who escaped from Kelly’s home goes sideways and gunfire erupts, Jordan delves into problem-solving mode. He is pinned down by snipers. Where are they and where are their blind spots? The exits the team had planned for have been compromised. How does he go about making a new one? The team needs a distraction to escape. How best to provide it? As the siege drags on, and Kelly wears down, he stays on task. Panicked flailing will do nothing. Exhausted surrender will do nothing. So Kelly keeps on. Move by move. Step by step. It’s driving, tense filmcraft from Jordan, Turner-Smith (who takes the lead for a close-quarters battle with one of the snipers), and Sollima.
As a film, Without Remorse is a well-crafted revenge and conspiracy thriller. As an adaptation, it’s kind of fascinating. Sheridan, Sollima, and Staples preserve the core of the Clancy novel of the same name – a brilliant soldier named John Kelly loses his beloved to evildoers tied to a globe-spanning conspiracy and sets out to take revenge.
But beyond updating the setting from the American War in Vietnam to the contemporary endless war, the trio sharply diverges from certain key aspects of Clancy’s right-wing American warrior fantasia.
Make no mistake, Without Remorse is still a film about a heroic (if anti-heroic) US soldier who unravels a conspiracy and saves America. But the nature and players in Without Remorse‘s conspiracy are a far cry from the book’s tales of murderous pimps and treacherous anti-war activist Senate aides. And as the bigger picture becomes clearer to Kelly, his mission evolves from revenge for the murder of his wife to revenge for her murder and for an unforgivably broken promise. Without saying too much, in places Without Remorse feels like a photo negative – an anti-Tom-Clancy Tom Clancy film.
Without Remorse is a very, very fine film. Jordan stands alongside Chris Hemsworth as an impressive non-martial-artist action lead and builds his John Kelly into a compelling anti-hero. Sollima crafts a variety of impressive action sequences, from the intimate prison battle to the sprawling, climactic action siege. And the screenplay’s dialogue with its source material is striking. Check it out, it’s worthy.
Without Remorse arrives on Amazon on April 30th.