Michael B. Jordan and the 'Without Remorse' cast on diversifying the Tom Clancy universe: 'Actors of color have so long been erased'

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'Tom Clancy's Without Remorse' review: I watched it. I have remorse.

New York Post 29 April, 2021 - 07:00pm

By Johnny Oleksinski

April 29, 2021 | 1:48pm | Updated April 29, 2021 | 2:33pm

Given the news cycle, I never thought I’d miss the Russians so much. They made bang-up movie villains during the Cold War and in its immediate aftermath. Remember Famke Janssen’s violently insatiable Xenia Onatopp in the 1995 James Bond film “GoldenEye”? Fantastic.

Now, old-fashioned Russian foils are back in “Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse,” an overly familiar revenge film that bears no resemblance to the original novel and stars Michael B. Jordan as John Clark.

Sadly, though, these lame-o Russians are no longer bursting with color and personality like St. Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square. They are positively Siberian.

The cold-blooded baddies start by killing the wife and unborn child of Navy SEAL John Kelly (Jordan; the character’s name change is explained) during an assassination attempt on multiple SEALs on US soil. John survives, and goes into full Charles Bronson-in-“Death Wish” mode, murdering anybody with even tangential involvement in the crime without government approval.

The best stop on his vigilante justice tour comes early on, outside Dulles Airport. He slams into the SUV of a Russian boss, douses the car in gasoline, sets it ablaze and … hops in? Yes, John interrogates the slimeball in a smoky, vehicular oven, and then shoots him in the throat. 

James Bond never did that. Roger Moore wouldn’t have risked soiling his pristine white tuxedo with blood and soot.

John, having taken lives and delayed countless flights, goes to prison, but nonetheless demands to be put on the team to kill the man responsible for his pain — Viktor Rykov (Brett Gelman).

“Sir, if this guy is as bad as you say he is, then you need somebody like me. And there’s nobody like me,” John says.

Man, truer words have never been spoken. Jordan is great, but the movie casts other strong actors such as Jodie Turner-Smith, Jamie Bell and Guy Pearce to fight alongside him, and renders them virtually unidentifiable. That’s not to say they’re disappearing into their roles — they’re disappearing full-stop, into Mr. and Ms. Cellophanes. 

The see-thru SEALs arrive secretly in Russia via Leipzig, Germany, and it’s there that the action sequences nosedive. Obviously, none of this was filmed in the actual country — the Kremlin would give that request a big fat “Nyet!” — so the last 40 minutes of the movie are filled with repetitive indoor shootouts that are too dark and anti-climactic to care about. 

Then, like a well-placed whoopee cushion, the laughable ending arrives. I won’t give it away, but it borrows devices from a zillion thrillers: a vast conspiracy, a hidden tape recorder, a defiant exit. You’ve seen and yawned at it all. The final action scene takes two previous ones and combines them into something comically unbelievable. 

The last moment of the film suggests there’s many more to come. Indeed, Clancy has written 20 books featuring John Clark. But, even with a star as charismatic and physically formidable as Jordan, audiences won’t be hungry for a single sequel. 

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John Clark is a Tom Clancy creation who exists in the same military-espionage universe as the better-known but similarly double-first-named Jack Ryan, who over the years has been played on the big screen by Ben Affleck, Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, and Chris Pine. Recently, the role’s been filled by John Krasinski, whose Jack Ryan series is two seasons deep on Amazon and set for another one. Without Remorse might look like part of an effort by the online monolith to build up some kind of misbegotten Clancyverse, but it’s actually a COVID casualty that was initially intended for theaters, then offloaded by Paramount after its planned release was delayed one too many times. The film was supposed to pave the way for a follow-up adaptation of Rainbow Six, a John Clark–centric novel with more name recognition due to the video-game franchise it inspired. That seems unlikely at this point, for reasons that can’t be pinned entirely on the pandemic. Without Remorse is awful — an incoherently shot, grindingly dull movie in which just about every actor manages to seem miscast.

That includes Jordan, an unarguable movie star with an inherently disarming quality onscreen that his best recent parts have emphasized — whether he’s playing a hero, like his cocky newcomer with so much to prove in Creed, or an antagonist, like his angry but idealistic Erik Killmonger in Black Panther. In Without Remorse, he ends up coming across as a brawny Boy Scout doing a Travis Bickle impression, his particular charisma continually at odds with his role as an unhinged vigilante originally conceived of as a riff on First Blood. He’s too fresh-faced for a character who feels rooted in grizzled anguish, and the movie does him no favors by requiring the character to go off the rails so quickly. One moment John’s in Aleppo, and the next, armed Russian contractors are storming his house in D.C. after the couple returns from a barbecue. Lauren London, playing his sacrificial spouse Pam, may get more screen time as a ghostly memory than a living person — there’s a scene in which John crouches in a paroxysm of grief in the wreck of their house after her death that’s downright excruciating.

The offing of a female character to give a male lead his motivation is such a wearisome cliché that the fact that Pam is eight months pregnant feels like a detail added to juice the tragedy for greater impact. There’s a certain counterbalance in having Jodie Turner-Smith play John’s former teammate and main ally, Lieutenant Commander Karen Greer — it’s the kind of role that someone like Jeffrey Dean Morgan tends to get plunked into. But she doesn’t get much to do except try, and fail, to keep John out of trouble, a dynamic that’s its own kind of familiar. Jamie Bell, as CIA agent Robert Ritter, and Guy Pearce, as Secretary of Defense Thomas Clay, give off equally weaselly vibes to provide some ambiguity about which of the two will end up being evil. Brett Gelman is bafflingly, if amusingly, cast as a nefarious Russian baddie named Viktor Rykov. For a continent-hopping action film, Without Remorse is sparsely populated, and the other characters it does offer up make so little of an impression that it muddies which members of the two military teams John is part of over the course of the runtime die, and harder to care.

Director Stefano Sollima tries to cop the style of the Bourne movies, but his action sequences lack that kineticism — a big set piece involving a plane crashing into the ocean is so visually murky that it’s difficult to tell where the suspense is meant to be coming from. The script is credited to Will Staples and to Taylor Sheridan, who wrote the last film Sollima directed, the 2018 sequel Sicario: Day of the Soldado. Sheridan’s written one great movie, Hell or High Water, and some howlers that have been given a pass because of stylish direction. Without Remorse doesn’t have the benefit of compelling filmmaking to draw attention away from exchanges so overblown they bring an unintended levity to what’s meant to be a firmly humorless affair. “Wherever you go, death will follow,” John’s told by one of his targets, and it’s a line that haunts him even though he’s suggested to have spent most of his life shooting people for a living. “If I would have pulled out one tour earlier, my wife, my kid would still be here,” he says to Karen. “My family — you don’t get that much more death around you than that.” Dumb as a rock, or just an unquestioning Tom Clancy hero for whom the answer to a military conspiracy is more military, and more secrecy.

Michael B. Jordan Tom Clancy

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