“Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse” is a lively formulaic action-hero origin story, dunked in combat grunge, that demonstrates how a resourceful lead actor can bend and heighten the meaning of a commercial thriller. In the opening sequence, which looks like an outtake from “Zero Dark Thirty” shot in the rubble of “Full Metal Jacket,” John Kelly (Michael B. Jordan), the leader of a team of U.S. Navy SEALs, heads up a mission in Aleppo to rescue a CIA operative who’s been taken hostage. The enemy combatants turn out to be Russian ex-military forces — which is not only a surprise, but something the team’s CIA overseer, the weaselly Robert Ritter (Jamie Bell), is trying to keep from them. Back in the States, several of the SEALs who were part of the mission are killed, execution-style, by Russian nationals. The assassins go after Kelly, too, gunning down his pregnant wife, Pam (Lauren London), though Kelly himself escapes. Which means that he’s now a ticking time bomb with his dial set to “bloody revenge.”
The specter of Russian aggression haunts “Without Remorse,” which is based on a 1993 Tom Clancy novel that was spun off from the Jack Ryan series. Clancy, who died in 2013, became a celebrity pulp novelist by fusing Cold War righteousness with insider munitions fetishism. His books had the lowdown on the latest military hardware, and that seduced readers into thinking that his hawkish espionage morality plays were authentic as well. The showdown between the U.S. and Russia was his fulcrum, and “Without Remorse,” which Taylor Sheridan and Will Staples’ script reconfigures to the present day, offers a kind of new-world-order version of it. The plot is sometimes murky, but more than that the Cold War tension is now a nostalgic shadow of its former self. Compared to a good “Bourne” film, “Without Remorse” feels generic; compared to the best of the Jack Ryan films, like “Patriot Games,” it will look right at home on the streaming venue of Amazon.
Yet Jordan, as a man programmed for payback, brings his own scowling renegade spin to it. Once Kelly loses his family, he’s hellbent because he’s in hell. With no one but his tough-love friend and officer Lt. Commander Karen Greer (Jodie-Turner Smith) to turn to, he’s the walking dead with attitude. He feels as betrayed by his overseers as Rambo did, but Jordan is too intense an actor to play Kelly as a standard angry-cool vengeful dynamo. He makes him disturbed, bothered, and torn up inside, which lends his scenes an undercurrent these movies usually don’t have.
As directed by Stefano Sollima (“Sicario: Day of the Soldado”), “Without Remorse” features a handful of tasty action set pieces, like one in which Kelly tails a corrupt Russian diplomat (Merab Ninidze) to Dulles International Airport, pours gasoline on his car, and sets it aflame, all so that he can death-wish the name of his wife’s killer out of him. Confined to a prison cell after these vigilante fireworks, Kelly fights off an army of guards by wrapping his fist in a towel and flooding the floor — a strategy the pumped-up Jordan makes quite convincing. He’s on a mission of no mercy, and after meeting with the U.S. Secretary of Defense, played by a too-diffident-to-trust Guy Pearce, and offering up the name of his wife’s killer, Victor Rykoff (Brett Gelman), as a bargaining chip, Kelly is made part of an elite task force to travel into the belly of the beast.
On the flight to Murmansk, Russia, they’re shot out of the sky by a Russian tracking plane, an extended sequence that Sollima stages as a vast underwater canvas of fear. Once Kelly and his crew arrive in Murmansk, though, “Without Remorse” becomes a rather prosaic action movie. And that’s because it’s only pretending to be a down-and-dirty revenge flick. An ominous Deep State vibe hangs over the action, but in this case the Deep State is really a shallow state — an amorphous “they” that never becomes especially menacing. Instead, the film follows a twisty logic of torturous paranoia, presenting attacks that have been designed to trigger counterattacks, all with diabolical political intent.
Tensions between the U.S. and Russia may be at a fuller boil now than they have been for a while, but “Without Remorse” is still a sign of how much the Clancy worldview has faded — and how much franchise thriller filmmaking has changed since the ’90s, when Jack Ryan ruled. On the one hand, Jordan plays Kelly with a supple alienation that taps into the desperation of the moment. Yet the film is held together by the three-day-old chewing gum of a conspiracy that’s just rickety enough to seem like a relic. In the end, Kelly does get his payback, though he has to turn himself into a “ghost” to do it. He’ll be back (a closing teaser promises a series about a superhero-style team of agents), but now that the ghost of Tom Clancy has launched this franchise, the producers, going forward, would be wise to leave the author’s square-jawed armchair realpolitik out of the picture.