Michael B. Jordan didn’t need to do Without Remorse. The actor has proven his ability to carry intimate indies and stand out among the effects bonanzas and franchise requirements of AAA blockbusters. The world is his. That makes his gamble to lead and produce a worn-out would-be military franchise-starter even harder to swallow.
There have to be better ways to secure your financial future than Without Remorse, which has next to nothing in common with the 1993 Tom Clancy novel of the same name aside from Clancy’s dad-targeting revenge fantasy nonsense and a central character named John Kelly (Jordan). A plot involving Vietnam, drugs and sex work has been jettisoned in director Stefano Sollima’s film in favor of one that vaguely gestures at America’s baddies du jour, Russia. But whatever might’ve been edgy or exciting about this character has been sandpapered down, stuffed into a laughably formulaic thriller and trafficked solely on star power—and neither Clancy nor Jordan’s name can make it stand out.
John, in this reimagining written by neo-Western staple Taylor Sheridan (with whom Sollima worked on Sicario: Day of the Soldado) and Will Staples (best known for writing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, which should be a major clue), is your run-of-the-mill Navy SEAL great at shooting anyone and everyone. He’s duped into shooting the wrong people (Russians instead of Syrians) and, in true cinematic fashion, his pregnant wife is punished for it: Gunned down (along with the pillows covered in blankets next to her, which the professional killers couldn’t tell wasn’t a human in the first of the film’s countless tropes) after a little retirement party straight out of a Mission: Impossible. The film doesn’t return to exploring the dichotomy between civilian life and action movie antics, but it’s at least a bit more compelling to watch how Jordan moves around a residential home than in myriad hazy setpieces.
This tragic home invasion is at least the one part of the film that feels unpredictable or, at the very least, cruelly human enough that the gloom and doom actually affects us rather than bores us with its bland moral and aesthetic greyscale. While action films have been going hard on the revenge rampage lately, when John’s only purpose becomes revenge, the perfunctory plot quickly clouds any of Jordan’s powerful emotions or primal drives with a mess of mystery. It doesn’t help that it’s completely transparent to anyone that’s seen a movie before. Was it truly just those dastardly Russians? Jamie Bell’s cagey CIA suit and the always-suspicious Guy Pearce’s Secretary of Defense all but jump up and down, waving their arms in our slack-jawed faces as they unpack exposition in ugly, empty conference rooms.
Piling on the conspiracies and politics only straps added weight—rather than stakes—to this slogging film, which didn’t need help being a plodding relic. Without urgency or cleverness, the rote narrative sticks a regular soldier into a supersoldier’s story and the result just doesn’t work. By that I mean Jordan’s playing it straight and serious. There are no quips, no knowing winks to the over-the-top action. But there’s a blank shapelessness to John that you mostly find in the kind of militarized superhuman living in these action movies. The film wants to be realistic—gritty, tactical, the kind of movie that tracks its bullet count and yells the proper jargon—but without any of those tricky problems that come with writing with specificity, especially when sticking a halfcocked rogue into real life. One of John’s first moves is to set a car on fire and kill a diplomat and his driver, unprovoked and in plain sight, then—as it’s part of his big plan—trusts the police to not immediately murder him there on the street. If you weren’t sure the movie was living in a fantasy world already, that’s all you need.
Everything good about Jordan’s performance—and there are things to like here: his physical vulnerability, his wet and struggling exclamations, his furious helplessness—is in direct conflict with the narrative’s string of Bourne Lunacy. This essential disconnect, this central contradiction of expectation, stalls the film out as its star, narrative and tone all compete for dominance and cancel each other out. Sometimes the action matches the desperate, pathetic anger Jordan brings to John, but that only means we’re rewarded with dismal brawls and gunfights that are just as monotonous and sober as they intend to be. Great. Watching Jordan, at peak physical fitness, whipping a bunch of SWATed-out prison guards after setting up his combat area through a series of mundane actions is one of the more successful (and grey, dull) moments of the movie. Even when Sollima’s at his best, the results are unpleasant.
Mostly, though, the filmmaker’s not anywhere close to his best as he follows John, an interchangeable group of military scruff and Lt. Commander Greer (Jodie Turner-Smith) as they try to figure out (AKA blast full of holes) whoever’s responsible for the assassination. Along the way you get ridiculous scenes like the one involving a collapsing, just-shot-down plane. John stays on board as it sinks into water with an ill-defined depth and geography. Why? The gear! What gear? He’s got to get the gear! He shouts this maybe half a dozen times as the rest of the people on the plane rightfully get the hell out of there. Does John get the gear? Eventually, yes, after slowly swimming through some equally ill-defined wreckage to get a nebulous bag of vague importance. Is it so boring that I yawned during the scene and then again, now, writing about the scene? You better believe it. This thriller is allergic to thrills in all forms, so adverse to excitement that it’d be anti-adrenaline propaganda if it hadn’t already sold all its ad space to the good ol’ U.S. of A.
If Without Remorse wasn’t so dull, it might be more helpful to criticize it for being stupid, with a belabored chess metaphor providing unintentional humor throughout. But in its current form, the groan-inducing stereotypes in its script are the only things that elicit any reaction from a viewer, so they have to be kept in. Making it just a little bit smarter—taking out perhaps just one of its multiple, intelligence-insulting ending clichés—could make its plot simply boring rather than asinine, which would make the film dangerously forgettable, able to inflict 100-minute gaps into moviegoers’ memories at distances of up to 500 yards.
In fact, if Without Remorse was simply mediocre, we might be in danger of it truly sparking a lucrative franchise that would lock one of our most talented actors up in a cinematic military recruitment game for years. For that reason alone, it’s good that the film is solidly terrible, so that—perhaps—Jordan and company can remove themselves from this troubling association without having to change their identities to do so.
Directors: Stefano Sollima
Writers: Taylor Sheridan, Will Staples
Stars: Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Bell, Jodie Turner-Smith, Luke Mitchell, Jack Kesy, Brett Gelman, Colman Domingo, Guy Pearce
Release Date: April 30, 2021 (Amazon)
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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