Jack Ryan might be valuable IP for a streaming giant like Amazon, but Tom Clancy’s entire brand of cloak-and-dagger “make your dad feel young again” spy stories has felt out of step with the film world ever since 2002’s “The Sum of All Fears,” when they nuked Ben Affleck at the Super Bowl in a desperate attempt to keep pace with the effects-driven spectacle of contemporary summer blockbusters. It’s too grounded, too small, too contained.
Despite the popularity of the “Rainbow Six” video game franchise (among other interactive series inspired by the author’s work), the Cold War concerns that grip Clancy’s writing feel a bit outmoded in a digital world in which keyboards and codes have become the most dangerous weapons a country might have. There’s a good reason why millennials didn’t flock to 2014’s “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit,” and it’s not just because it’s bad.
On the other hand, Clancy was ahead of the curve in some respects. He crucially understood the value of creating a shared universe for his characters, even if Jack Ryan’s individual adventures played out in the span of a single book; he recognized how threading his novels together in even the most casual manner would lend them all a greater sense of scope and importance. In that light, the strangest thing about Amazon Studios’ “Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse” is that it took so long for someone to re-conceive the Ryanverse for the Avengers era.
But if this dank and flavorless black ops thriller ultimately accomplishes that goal in shameless fashion (capping things off with a mid-credits stinger so indebted to Nick Fury that Michael B. Jordan might as well be wearing an eyepatch when he pitches the Rainbow initiative), the movie also shares its hero’s ambivalence towards the mission at hand. Much like the hard-nosed but honorable Navy SEAL John Clark, who quits the military after a shady night in Syria leaves him feeling like a pawn in a game that’s apathetic towards his possible sacrifice, “Without Remorse” doesn’t understand the role it’s meant to serve as the foundation of a potential franchise. It’s a movie locked in a tedious custody battle between legacy and potential, too safe to whet appetites for what’s to come while also too sequel-oriented to stand on its own two legs.
If “Without Remorse” is able to become the start of something bigger, it will do so because of the tense chemistry it rekindles between Jordan and co-star Jamie Bell (who first collaborated on 2015’s misbegotten “Fantastic Four”; they were smart enough to rescue what they could from the wreckage). On his own, Jordan — who also produced the film, and shows off the kind of lat muscles that suggest he might’ve carried the whole project on his back — isn’t a particularly compelling Clark.
Not that Taylor Sheridan and Will Staples’ Keto-lean script gives him much of a chance. This is a clenched and single-minded protagonist who goes full John Wick after his pregnant wife is murdered by a Russian hit squad and only talks in sentences like “We served a country that didn’t love us back because we believed in what it could be.” That’s the only mode he’s got left after the first 15 minutes of this movie, and you get the sense that Clark would say the same thing to a Starbucks barista who asked him how he was doing that day.
But John Clark was always the more action-oriented flipside to Jack Ryan, and Jordan owns the character’s physicality with the same full-body force that willed new life into the “Rocky” franchise and made Erik Killmonger feel like a genuine threat in a film universe where death itself is only temporary. He’s got too much gravitas and raw talent to ever go the full-time DTV route — Jordan has Oscars in his future, not “Jarhead” sequels that are only sold at gas stations — but watching him clear out a room of hostiles in Aleppo or eliminate the goons who break into his house in the D.C. suburbs or even walk down the aisle of an empty passenger jet with the velocity of someone whose arms weigh more than your legs is further proof of his cosmic potential as an action star.
Director Stefano Sollima isn’t able to find much light or urgency in a story that’s enervated by the same numb “what would Denis Villeneuve do?” mindset that be brought to the similarly lifeless “Sicario: Day of the Soldado,” but “Without Remorse” comes alive during the sinewy long-takes that follow Jordan moving between the floors of an abandoned Russian apartment building amidst a shootout, or keep eyes on him during a plane crash that’s shot with the same kind of analog realness that Phillip Noyce used to bring to these things. Sollima thrives in the details of physical action; the most effective beat in the entire film involves nothing more than a lit flashlight rolling around on the floor as Clark looks into the darkness of his corpse-strewn living room.
It’s the rare kind of human moment that allows you to see “Without Remorse” for what the film is doing instead of all the things it’s trying to do, and every scene between Clark and CIA operative Robert Ritter (Bell) produces the same friction. Bell might seem a little young for the Agent Coulson part, but that only makes Ritter that much harder to get a read on; from the moment Ritter misleads Clark into the fateful Syrian mission that sets this story into motion, Bell’s sly and elusive performance leaves you unsure of the game he’s playing. A lesser actor would’ve let Ritter go cold, only to rely on the third act reveal that — good or bad — he’s actually invested in the outcome of Clark’s vendetta. But Bell endows the character with such a vast matrix of secret concerns that it feels like he’s locked Ritter behind the bars of an electrified cage that Clark is desperate to open. For all of the film’s many different missteps, you can’t help but want to see Bell and Jordan keep that spark alive.
If only “Without Remorse” inspired the same feelings about Jodie Turner-Smith’s Navy SEAL (though the “Queen & Slim” star is so natural that you never think twice about a woman on a team that doesn’t actually allow yet), Guy Pearce’s Defense Secretary, or the great Colman Domingo’s two-scene cameo as … it’s unclear. A neighbor, maybe? The decision to unironically cast Brett Gelman as a ruthless assassin is one of those gambles that sounds fun in theory, but sucks you right out of the movie during his big moment.
It doesn’t help that Gelman’s character is tasked with providing a large percentage of the mystery to a thriller that’s painfully short on it already; while Clark’s battle with the shadowy forces behind the scenes might lay some key groundwork for future adventures, there’s a puzzling lack of suspense to his origin story (which builds to a reveal so predictable that it almost feels like reverse psychology). “Without Remorse” is true to its title, but Sollima’s film is also without intrigue, or surprise, or any of the emotional texture you might expect from a movie about a guy who watches his very pregnant wife get murdered — by Brett Gelman of all people!
Instead, “Without Remorse” places all its bets on future potential. It’s enough to convince you that the Ryanverse could work in today’s blockbuster ecosystem, but only because it’s a reminder of how suffocating that ecosystem has become.
“Without Remorse” will be available to stream on Amazon Prime starting Friday, April 30.