Film Review: ‘Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse’

by Ben Martin

While Tom Clancy‘s (1947-2013) military-based novels might not be everyone’s bag, there’s no arguing that the author was one of the most prolific and best-selling novelists of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. (A feat that’s especially impressive considering Clancy didn’t publish his first book – The Hunt for Red October in (1987) until he was in his late 30s). As a result, the odds are that if you’re a reader, you’ve at least read one of Clancy’s works, if not many more. I went through a phase of reading many of his books as a teenager after seeing what is arguably the most significant movie adaptation of his work – Patriot Games (1992). After reading several of his novels, including the one which is the basis for the movie in review, I moved to other authors. Mind you, I find Clancy to have been a talented writer. I just grew tired of reading the subgenre of military fiction which he had perfected. While Clancy’s popularity and the adaptations it bore were at its apex in the 1990s, interpretations of his work are still fruitful; particularly in video games.

However, none of the author’s books have been adapted into a movie since Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014). Clancy’s adaptations being absent from the big screen are most likely a result of his relationship with Paramount Pictures, the one studio he worked with on major motion picture adaptations of his work souring over The Sum of All Fears (2002). Reportedly, Clancy was unhappy with the changes made to adapt his 1991 novel. Which, I feel, is another way of saying that The Sum of All Fears movie strayed far away from The Cold War politics Clancy and the majority of his writings are steeped. Seeing as the filmic adaptation of Sum was released less than a year after 9/11, the story and politics within it were understandably updated for that time.

Still, there was one novel of Clancy’s that Paramount had been trying to get from page-to-screen for nearly twenty years. I’m, of course, referring to his 1993 novel Without Remorse. A book which was particularly close to its author’s heart, and one he was going to be very stringent when it came to adapting. The protagonist of Without Remorse, John Clark, made his feature film debut the year after the novel’s publication in Patriot Games‘ lacklustre cinematic follow-up Clear And Present Danger (1994). In that film, Clark is portrayed by the eternally watchable character actor Willem Dafoe (Sam Rami‘s Spider-Man Trilogy). However, producers wanted a more physical actor to play Clark in Without Remorse.

A trifecta of significant attempts was made to bring the novel to the screen before finally getting to the film in review today. Initially, Keanu Reeves (The Matrix) was offered the role of Clark in 1996 for a whopping $7 million. But, Reeves was making an effort to do more dramatically based projects at the time and declined. Following that, a few more attempts to adapt Without Remorse occurred in the aughts. 

Around 2002, it was reported that Reeves’ Matrix co-star Laurence Fishburn and Gary Sinise (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) would headline an adaptation of the novel. Alas, that production was ultimately shut down before it even reached the starting line due to financial issues. Finally, there was an idea to make Without Remorse a sequel of sorts to Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. In this proposed sequel, the character of Clark was to be played by Tom Hardy in this origin tale wherein the character would be trained by Thomas Harper (Kevin Coster), returning from the previous picture. However, after Shadow Recruit underperformed, Paramount scrapped the origin film as a sequel approach.

Finally, the film was revived in its current form as a star vehicle for the ever-talented Michael B. Jordan (Black Panther). Despite having an ongoing franchise with the Rocky spinoff series, it seems the young actor wants a film franchise all his own. Hence, why Jordan and the folks involved in Without Remorse have already committed to a sequel with Rainbow Six. Those other folks being director Stefano Sollima (ZeroZeroZero) and screenwriters Taylor Sheridan (Yellowstone, Those Who Wish Me Dead) and Will Staples (The Right Stuff (2020)). Together, these folks have created an adaptation, which, from what I recall, largely strays from its source material.

Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse is the loosest of adaptations. One that finds Navy SEAL John Kelly (Jordan) amid a deadly conspiracy goes far beyond the dangers of any previous military mission he’s experienced. (In case you’re wondering, know I have no idea why they changed the last name of the protagonist.) Shortly after returning home from his latest tour of duty, members of Kelly’s unit are assassinated in an orchestrated fashion. However, when the unknown assassins invade Kelly’s home, they meet their match in the Sr. Chief. Unfortunately, though, the hit squad does kill Kelley’s wife and unborn daughter during the violence, which leaves him with multiple severe wounds. Upon coming out of his coma, Kelly quickly recovers and sets out to avenge his family and find out how deep this apparent conspiracy goes.

From the outset, Without Remorse seems to hold such promise. Not only for Jordan as a performer but also as an entertaining return to the world of Tom Clancy. Alas, after an engaging first act, the movie becomes a dry experience that gets bogged down in the red tape of bureaucracy. Thus, the film’s entire middle act becomes concerned with a conspiracy that’s all too obvious from the very beginning. And, as this all unfolds, one aspect of what becomes a rather dull story becomes abundantly clear. Clancy is a military scholar, and that usually translates for the better. However, sometimes it just results in too much minutiae. Sadly, this latter quality of the source material is glaring in screenplay form. While I speak for Staples’ writing style, I can undoubtedly say that Sheridan’s macho, self-serious approach to characters hurts Without Remorse.

Specifically, all the characters in this film feel like nothing more than essential plot devices. As a result, Jordan nor anyone else in this can deliver an exciting performance. Instead, what should be an interesting take on the Revenge subgenre turns into nothing more than a bland and predictable military thriller. Moreover, the movie feels like it was scaled down after the transition from theatrical distribution via Paramount  to digital distribution via Amazon. If that’s not the case, then Paramount has cooked up the dullest Summer blockbuster for adults ever. Nothing in these genres should be as bland as Without Remorse. The only way I can recommend this picture is if you’re a completist when it comes to Clancy and/or Jordan. 

Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse is available to stream Exclusively on Amazon Prime Video

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