As with all review-caps, MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD for Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse. You’ve been warned.
For fans of Tom Clancy’s novels (and/or the movies that Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford and Ben Affleck starred in), probably the most beloved character from his books besides Jack Ryan would be John Clark. A film version of Clark’s origin story, Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse, has been in the works forever with numerous directors and actors attached to the project over the years. But finally, with the massive success of Amazon’s Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan series, it seems the time was finally right for the hugely popular character’s story to come out.
We begin in Aleppo, Syria, where a US Navy SEAL team emerges from a cistern to take out some bad guys. At the forefront is Senior Chief John Kelly (Michael B. Jordan) and the team’s commander, Karen Greer (Jodie Turner-Smith). Yes, that Greer. She’s Jim’s niece. The team meets up with their liaison from the CIA, Robert Ritter (Jamie Bell) – a character that fans of Harrison Ford’s Jack Ryan will remember from Clear and Present Danger (1994).
Ritter tells Greer they’re going in to rescue one of their operatives from the Syrian army. But once they’re in the middle of it, Kelly and Greer realize the place isn’t a Syrian military safe house. It’s a Russian arms depot. Big surprise, Ritter lied. The team successfully rescues the operative, but they lose one of their men in the process.
Afterward, Kelly gets in Ritter’s face about not giving them all the information they needed. Not surprisingly, Ritter’s unmoved and smug about the whole thing as he calls in an airstrike on the location. Kelly nearly beats the crap out of him, but Greer makes him stand down.
Three months later in North Carolina, a member of the SEAL team, Rowdy (Luke Mitchell), gets run down by a van outside his house (in an amazing blend of stunt and visual effects work).And iIn Atlanta, another team member, Keith Webb (Cam Gigandet), gets gunned down in his car.
In Washington, D.C., a bunch of baddies in full night-vision gear arrive at Kelly and his pregnant wife Pam’s (Lauren London) house. They shoot Pam while she’s asleep in bed, but don’t realize that Kelly isn’t with her. Kelly takes them out one by one as he comes upstairs from the basement. Then he comes face to face with Pam’s assassin and they plug several rounds into each other. There’s a really cool shot where a flashlight left on the floor rolls around, illuminating one and then the other. The assassin takes off his goggles and reveals his face before firing at Kelly again, but he’s empty.
The assassin manages to get up and limp out the door while Kelly crawls to the bedroom and finds Pam dead. While he’s being taken care of in the hospital, Ritter heads up a briefing on the attacks with all manner of government suits and military top brass. He says the remaining SEAL team members are being protected, but that it’s likely that those who died were into something illegal – running guns, drugs and/or selling information. Furious, Greer confronts him about that afterward, insisting that her people weren’t corrupt and Ritter once again narrowly escapes getting his a** kicked.
Kelly has a dream of Pam being swept away from him and wakes up later to find Greer by his bedside. She sadly confirms that the baby didn’t make it. Kelly tells her that the baddies were pros and that the one who killed Pam got away. He wants to know who it was, but Greer tells him she couldn’t say even if she knew.
Next, we’re introduced to Secretary Clay (Guy Pearce), who comes to see Greer at her office. He mentions that he worked with her uncle Jim, but she seems unimpressed, which kind of infers that they don’t have much of a relationship. Clay asks her if Kelly can be trusted.
There’s a montage of time passing as Kelly works his butt off to get through rehab. Meanwhile, Clay invites Greer to sit in on a briefing from Ritter about the status of the investigation. Ritter tells them that one of the men they killed in Syria was the son of the head of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) and that the attacks on the SEALs were payback for their dead men in Syria. Clay says that means that technically, it was a Russian attack on US soil.
Greer asks Ritter again about the Russians’ arms dealing in Syria and he sort of admits they knew about it. Greer asks about the fourth man, the one who got away from Kelly, and Ritter says it doesn’t matter. As far as CIA’s concerned, the score’s settled and the CIA Director feels it’s “unnecessary to poke the bear any further.”
Greer shows up at Kelly’s rehab facility and pulls out some whiskey for them to slug while she gives him the bad news. She says she finally understands why he wanted to beat the sh*t out of Ritter back in Syria. Even though she knows she’ll get in trouble for it, she shows Kelly the information they got from Ritter and the ID of the man who issued the baddies’ passports, Andre Vasiliev (Merab Ninidze).
Kelly packs up some gear he had hidden in the house and puts his plan into action, finding Vasiliev as he’s being driven to Dulles Airport. Kelly follows them in a stolen tow truck and reports Vasiliev’s security detail to 911. The airport cops pull them over, leaving Vasiliev’s vehicle vulnerable. Kelly rams the car, douses it in gas and sets it on fire. Then he gets in the backseat, which is either the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen or the most ridiculous. I still can’t decide which.
Anyway, Kelly shoots the driver and then Vasiliev in the leg, demanding to know who the fourth man was. Vasiliev just says wherever Kelly goes, “death will follow.” Kelly shoots him again, this time puncturing his lung. Vasiliev finally gives up the name, Viktor Rykov (Brett Gelman), before he dies. Then Kelly gets out of the car – unbelievably untouched by the raging fire – and gives himself up to the cops.
The next day, Clay’s watching a news report about the link between the Vasiliev attack and the assassinations of the SEALs with Ritter standing there. Ritter assures Clay it wasn’t CIA who leaked the info about the SEALs to the press, and says that Greer must have told Kelly about Vasiliev.
Greer goes to see Kelly in jail and tells him he’s not in the proper state of mind. He’s “messy.” Kelly says he’ll show them “what a pawn can do to a king.” He asks Greer to get a message to Clay, saying he’ll give up whatever info he has – but only if Clay gets him out of that jail, which is full of Russian mob guys who will try to kill him.
Later, back in his cell, one of the guards tells Kelly to get up and face the wall. He’s being taken on a “little trip.” Kelly refuses to comply unless they tell him where they’re taking him. While the guard leaves to get more guys, Kelly prepares for the impending fight. Three guards bust in riot gear and Kelly puts them all down, taking one of them hostage. He tells the rest to back off and close the cell or else he’ll break their necks.
As a bunch more guys in riot gear show up, a US Marshal (Michael Akinsulire) also shows up and gives Kelly a cell phone. Greer’s on the other end, telling him to go with the Marshals – they’re getting him out. They bring Kelly to some warehouse with a shipping container/mobile intel suite inside. Greer’s there, as well as Ritter, Clay and CIA Director Dillard (Lucy Russell). Clay asks what Kelly knows and he gives them the name Viktor Rykov.
Kelly knows Rykov was the guy who killed Pam – but who is he besides that? Ritter’s reluctant to share, but he finally reveals that Rykov’s basically a terrorist who believes in bringing down the US with a series of targeted attacks. Ritter calls him “a planner and a doer.” They show Kelly a photo lineup and he ID’s Rykov.
Bringing Rykov in means going to Russia. Kelly says he needs to be on the team. “You need someone like me … and there’s nobody like me,” he says. Clay agrees to let Kelly go – but after the mission’s over, he has to return to prison. Cut to Leipzig, Germany, where they meet up with the rest of the new team, Thunder (Jack Kesy) and Hatchet (Jacob Scipio). They gear up for the trip into Russian airspace, where they’ll be HALO jumping out of a passenger jet so as not to raise any alarms with the Russians.
Once they’re underway, Kelly talks to Greer, asking if she doesn’t trust him anymore. She just repeats that he’s “messy” right now. Kelly says that if he’d left the job after his last tour instead of going on the Aleppo mission, Pam and his child would still be alive. Greer says it’s not a revenge mission, it’s an extraction. They’re going to bring Rykov to justice and that needs to be enough for Kelly.
By this time the plane’s flying over the Barents Sea, in Russian airspace. The team’s about to jump when they’re intercepted by the Russian Air Force. Kelly calls an abort while the pilot tries floating their cover about their being a passenger jet. But the Russians aren’t going for it and they fire on the jet, taking out one wing. The plane crashes into the sea, and there’s an impressive stunt sequence of the cabin rotating around as it fills with water.
Greer orders them to evacuate but Kelly wants to save their gear. As the plane cracks in half and starts sinking, Kelly finds a bunch of life jackets and ties them to the gear. He nearly drowns but manages to hang on to some of the gear as it floats to the surface. Then they find their inflatable boat and take off for Murmansk.
They find a place to hole up and Kelly surmises that Ritter must have sold them out, given that he was the only one who wasn’t on the plane. Cut to wherever Ritter is and the team busts in on him in the middle of making some kind of deal with a couple of Russian guys with a bunch of cash.
Kelly slams Ritter against a wall and throttles him with a gun to his head. Ritter tries to explain that he was trying to get to Viktor Rykov and that the two Russian guys were going to lead them to him. Ritter promises he wasn’t selling them out, but Kelly nearly chokes him to death anyway, just out of general principle at this point.
After dark, the team makes their way into Rykov’s building and up the steps. Then, Kelly tells them all to hang back, making like he spots something. Instead, he leaves them behind and locks them out as he heads for Rykov’s apartment. Once inside, he finds all of Rykov’s minders lying dead all over the apartment.
Rykov calls out to him, knowing who Kelly is. Rykov says he’s a CIA operative and that Ritter’s story about preventing more attacks is bullsh*t. Just as the rest of the team catches up and Kelly realizes Rykov isn’t going to be talked down, they start backing away. But it’s too late and Rykov sets off the bomb.
The team survives the blast only to be ambushed by snipers. The Russian police show up and the snipers take them out, too. Kelly and Greer finally understand what Rykov was talking about – the whole thing’s been set up to heighten tensions between the US and Russia and start a war.
So, Kelly sets a shape charge on one wall to blast their way out, and he and Greer go after one of the snipers. He covers while Greer goes after the guy. But her rifle jams and she ends up having to take the guy out in a close-quarter fight, doing him in with a knife to the back. Then, as the team makes their way back downstairs with their injured, they find themselves surrounded by Russian police.
One of the team dies right then and Kelly decides that he’ll go up to the roof and clear a path for them to get out. Greer doesn’t want to leave him but reluctantly lets him go as it’s really their only way out. Once on the roof, Kelly starts tossing grenades and firing around the cops to distract them while Greer and the rest of the team sneak out and back to the van.
The team drives off and Kelly’s on his own, trying to make an escape while taking out all the Russians coming after him. He takes a shot to the shoulder and then dives back down through the skylight into the building. There’s an impressive, Civil War–type fight sequence as Kelly fights a bunch more guys on his way down the stairs. Once in the lobby, he sets off the explosive in one of the backpacks.
Wearing one of the Russian uniforms and a gas mask, Kelly manages to blend in and escape, taking off in an ambulance. He barely manages to drive back to their rally point where Greer’s waiting for him. She gets them to a boat where Ritter and what’s left of the team are waiting.
As they sail off, Kelly talks with Greer and Ritter, saying that he’s got nothing to go back to except jail. Ritter says there’s some money in a duffel below deck. It’s for him, but the catch is that Kelly’s officially dead. With Kelly being a ghost, Ritter says they might be able to find out who was behind it all.
Back in D.C., Secretary Clay eats dinner at a restaurant and watches the news report about the Murmansk incident. Then he goes to the men’s room where Kelly’s waiting. Clay’s surprised to see him and Kelly said he had to become a ghost in order to get his information back to Clay. Kelly tells him about the whole thing being a CIA set up in order to start a war.
Clay says he’s not convinced that the CIA Director would’ve done that. Kelly tells him about Rykov blowing himself up and Clay’s not surprised to hear it. Thing is, Greer never put that information in her report. Oops. Clay’s busted. Kelly grabs him, chokes him out and then he takes him for a drive.
Clay wakes up to find himself chained to the passenger seat. Kelly threatens to kill his entire family if he doesn’t start talking. Clay spins his “I-woulda-gotten-away-with-it-too-if-it-wasn’t-for-you-meddling-kids-and-your-dog” spiel, about how it wasn’t the military who wanted the second World War to happen – it was the economists. The massive manufacturing effort and spending saved America from poverty, and the war saved the world from tyranny.
Clay says that America needs an enemy to fight instead of fighting each other, so they brought back the Soviet Union, an enemy that once unified the country and gave them purpose. Russia’s a target they can put all their energy and spending into fighting.
Kelly then drives off the bridge, crashing the SUV into the Potomac. As the cabin fills with water, Kelly tells Clay to say his wife’s name. Clay screams out her name just before he drowns. Then Kelly just sits there at the bottom of the river waiting to die. Then, he sees something odd — a rainbow. He has a dream/vision of Pam where he asks if they’re in heaven. She says no. He asks if she’s in heaven. She just says she’s with him. Not always, but right now. He says he misses her.
Cut to Kelly’s funeral, where Greer’s given his flag. She gets in her car to find Kelly in her backseat. Big surprise. Turns out she rescued him from the wreck. Not only that, but Kelly also recorded his whole conversation with Clay. Cut to Ritter playing the recording for the President and asking for a favor.
Later, Greer escorts Kelly to the train station. She gives him his new passport and his new name courtesy of Ritter – John Clark. She asks what he’s going to do and he says, “What we do best … disappear.” She tells him not to be a stranger even though he’s “dead.”
Finally, there’s a mid-credits scene where Kelly meets up with Ritter a year later in D.C. Kelly calls him “Director,” so Ritter’s been promoted. Kelly says he’s been thinking about everything that happened and how it could happen again. He has an idea about forming a multi-national counterterrorism team made up of American, British and other soldiers from NATO countries, backed by all the major intelligence services.
Kelly wants to present the idea to the President and Ritter asks who’d be leading it. Kelly says he would, and that he’s calling it “Rainbow.” Ritter says it’s good to have him back as he leaves and Kelly replies, “It’s good to be back.”
I’ll admit that I’ve only gotten about halfway through the novel, Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse. But it’s definitely far enough to know that the story presented here is not the book. Not at all. I suppose that shouldn’t come as any big surprise. More often than not, film adaptations of novels end up having little (or nothing) to do with their source material. It’s mainly just capitalizing on the marketing value of the title and/or the characters. I would be more okay with them changing everything had it been an improvement on the novel’s story. Sadly, it wasn’t.
The flick does have a good bit going for it, though. Michael B. Jordan is a solid lead, the action is top-notch and it looks terrific. (Except for the sequence in those Russian apartment buildings. That really looked like a low-budget set.) Those things in and of themselves are certainly enough to entertain and satisfy a lot of folks and make watching the flick worthwhile.
What doesn’t satisfy me, though, is the story and the lack of character development. I know the actual story of Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse doesn’t really jibe with the world the way it is now as far as politics. But it wouldn’t have taken much tinkering to make the story timelier, and still stay true to the novel and the character of John Clark.
So, I don’t understand why the creatives behind the movie decided that the best idea was to reduce Clark’s story to one that’s been done so many times already it’s almost comical. There’s literally nothing else to the bad-guys-kill-good-guy’s-wife-good-guy-goes-on-revenge-mission thing.
The film is so obvious about everything that all it takes is Guy Pearce’s first appearance to know that he’s the big bad. Jamie Bell’s Ritter is almost as lame, but at least Bell makes him into a semi-decent chameleon whose alliance shifts depending on the situation he’s in. But the rest of the flick is so minimalist that it isn’t a story so much as it is a series of action sequences cut together.
One of the worst crimes the flick commits is not connecting to the Jack Ryan series other than the character of Karen Greer, who just ends up being a throwaway connection at best. Jim Greer should have been in this movie, plain and simple. The fact that he wasn’t is unforgivable.
It’s such a shame because all of this almost overshadows Michael B. Jordan’s performance, which often hints at so much more going on under the surface. Anyone who’s read Clancy’s books knows what a complex character John Clark is. However, this flick doesn’t allow for any more than brief glimpses into that complexity before it’s drowned out in a hail of gunfire and explosions. So if gunplay, fight scenes and explosions are all you really want out of it, then Without Remorse delivers. But if it’s the true origin story of John Clark and the character you’re looking for, you’ll be disappointed.
Directed by: Stefano Sollima
Written by: Taylor Sheridan, Will Staples, Tom Clancy (novel)
Release Date: Apr. 30, 2021
Run Time: 1 hr 49 min
Distributor: Amazon Studios
Streaming exclusively on Amazon Prime Video