There was a time when Hollywood knew how to make movies like Without Remorse in its sleep. What should be a bare-knuckle brute force action movie is instead a pseudo-intellectual, bland, gutless, bore of a film. It’s one of those films that they make to see if we wouldn’t mind other movies instead of just making those other films.
Stefano Sollima doesn’t seem to know or understand what he wants Without Remorse to be. Based on a Tom Clancy novel of the same name and adapted by Taylor Sheridan and Will staples, we’re left wondering if maybe the book doesn’t know either. Movies based on Tom Clancy’s characters used to be a Hollywood event. But that was when Clancy’s characters were older men who held desk jobs and were not innate action heroes.
But to a whole generation, they are familiar with Tom Clancy’s name because first-person shoots video games. However you know him, I can’t imagine Without Remorse being much fun for anyone. It’s just meandering, tired and hollow.
Sollima hits all the beats, but he does with a sort of flat perfunctory thud. The premise is a reliable one, usually, anyways. Michael B. Jordan plays a Navy SEAL, John Kelly. He’s a character introduced early on to us when a CIA Officer, Rober Ritter (Jamie Bell), asks John if he’s a wise ass. One of his fellow SEALS says no. “That would be me. He’s the badass.”
To everybody’s credit, John Clark is a badass. It’s just a pity the move never does much with it. After a mission in Aleppo goes sideways with some Russian Arms Dealers, the movie cuts ahead to when the SEAL team is retired. John is looking to get into the private sector, and his pregnant wife Pam (Lauren London) is happy that he is going into a safer line of work.
Anyone who knows anything about these types of movies knows that anytime a Navy SEAL retires after an operation goes south, he or his pregnant wife is not long for this world. Sure enough, masked men begin systematically executing members of John’s team.
Now John must go on a one-man vengeance quest, except he doesn’t, or he kind of does. One of the irritating things about Without Remorse is how it keeps avoiding the issue. It would be one thing if the plot were at all interesting, but it’s not. Eventually, his squad leader Lt. Commander Karen Greer (Jodie Turner-Smith), gets him out of jail and onto an elite team going to Russia to chase down the man who killed his wife.
Why is he in jail? Because he tracked down a Russian delegate, killed his driver, and set his car on fire in front of the airport. This, by the way, is one of the best scenes of the movie. That’s because Sollima doesn’t shoot it like a video game. He frames it as in an operatic moment of a man driven to the end of his sanity. Jordan stands there watching the flames burn before walking over to the car, opening the door, and climb inside, while it is engulfed in flames, to interrogate the “prisoner.”
It is a moment of true badassery as well as being visually fascinating. The way Sollima and his DP Phillipe Rousselot frame and shoot the scene gives us a sense of grandiosity. John Kelly is in hell, and he will visit it upon his enemies. Part of what makes this so compelling is Rousselot allows us to see John Kelly toss the lighter onto the car he has doused in gasoline. He does this by setting the camera just behind Jordan’s shoulder. Once the car catches fire, we follow him as John walks around the car to open the door. But Rousselot pulls back slightly, allowing distance to grow between us and the character as he crosses a line.
Every other scene in the movie is shot either in pitch black or murky underwater shots and has no emotional stakes. They feel like scenes staged for a videogame. Rousselot’s camerawork is wasted even as it is, on the surface, polished and slick.
There is evidence of a better, more interesting, and dare I say visually poignant movie inside this mess. Moments in which John remembers Pam. Rousselot shoots these scenes in brighter colors, John laying down, his wife cuddling him. The wind blows, the leaves around them began to float away; Pam is soon being pulled from his grasps.
The scenes are short and all too few, but they give us some emotional insight into John’s fragile emotional state. Not to mention add a layer of sensitivity to a hardened man. It’s a minor stroke of visual storytelling that the film all too quickly abandoned in favor of visual tedium of over-the-shoulder first-person shoot-out.
Sollima can’t figure out what to do with this shambling of a narrative about a Navy SEAL just now realizing that his country may not have his best interest at heart. As an idea, this could work. It has worked multiple times.
While in prison, John tells Commander Greer as much. It’s a good monologue, one of the few times where the dialogue rises above monotony. But it feels hollow because the movie never does more than pay lip service to it or embolden the idea through any kind of visual narrative or theme. It’s just an excellent point that falls flat because no one involved believes it or cares.
Without Remorse tries to be political, but it can’t commit. In terms of saying something about the system it’s portraying, it has nothing to say or even comment. This is a shame. Jordan as Kelly is obviously physically up for the part, but we can see how much he’s chomping at the bit to make his character human or at the least interesting.
The casting throughout the film is, to the film’s credit, interesting, even when it doesn’t work out. Jamie Bell, as the unlikeable jerk of a CIA Deputy Director Ritter, is delightful. I didn’t even realize it was him despite knowing he was in the movie. Guy Pearce shows up to play the Secretary of Defense, and he is predictably solid. He’s not sleepwalking, but his casting is too on the nose. Once you learn about a plot point that there’s a secret shadowy figure controlling everything, and then see Pearce, the dots become connected rather quickly.
However, the real crime of Without Remorse is how it wastes the charismatic Colman Domingo in a thankless role as John’s friend and Pastor. Domingo is a treasure of a screen presence, and the fact he is so underutilized is reason enough to skip this cinematic bore. This goes double for how Turner-Smith is relegated to the thankless task of standing on the sideline, glaring, and stating the obvious.
All of these choices are made worse by the half-baked script. How half-baked is the script? The film’s entire plot is revealed to be a master plan to give the fractured populous a common enemy.
“The problem today, John, is half the country thinks the other half is the enemy because they have no one else to fight.” This is a hilariously ignorant reading of the current political climate at best. This is another example of the movie talking about something it has refused to engage with or even back up.
Without Remorse is hobbled not by how dated the “cold war era” politics of its plot. No, its weakness is that it’s a dull film to look at, and worse, nothing of interest is being said or displayed within those wearisome scenes. It has nothing to say, but what little it does have to say, it mumbles incoherently.
Image courtesy of Amazon
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