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Tom Clancy's Without Remorse Review: You'll Have Remorse If You Watch It

After the release of his breakout novel, 1984's "The Hunt for the Red October," author Tom Clancy found himself in a position of power unusual for a novelist. His book climbed the New York Times bestseller list after an endorsement from Ronald Reagan, and it's retroactively been cited as restoring faith in the U.S. military, which had been badly damaged in the years following the Vietnam War. Fast forward nine years to 1993, when Clancy's newest bestseller, "Without Remorse," was taking inspiration from "First Blood," humanizing one of the countless Vietnam veterans the author believed been neglected by successive administrations — and then putting said veteran at the center of a bloody revenge thriller

Due to its unashamedly right-wing overtones, "Without Remorse" is an unusual choice to update for modern audiences as a Michael B. Jordan vehicle. And that's arguably the biggest problem with this action film from controversial Italian filmmaker Stefano Sollima — best known for 2018's swiftly forgotten "Sicario" sequel — as it brings the story into the present while deliberately making sure it doesn't alienate anybody on either side of the central political divide. For liberal audiences, there's the suggestion of a collaboration between the Russian government and the most powerful U.S. personnel. And for those on the right, there's the general sense that the "deep state" is abusing its power instead of keeping the country safe. It's a strange attempt to update deeply divisive material, and it proves unsatisfying every time the exquisitely staged action grinds to a halt and the contrived plot kicks back in.

A star vehicle designed for Michael B. Jordan's Killmonger

In this update, Clancy's John Clark (Michael B Jordan) is no longer a Vietnam vet but a U.S. Navy SEAL fighting in a war-torn region of Syria. Three months after rescuing a CIA operative from ex-Russian military forces, his pregnant wife, Pam (Lauren London), is murdered in their bed. John is shot and wounded, but he manages to kill all but one of their Russian assailants. He's the latest military figure to be attacked and left for dead by these forces, further straining the relationship between the U.S. and Russia, which is already at breaking point. As John heals in hospital, CIA officer Robert Ritter (Jamie Bell), Secretary of Defense Thomas Clay (Guy Pearce), and former SEAL team commander Karen Greer (Jodie Turner-Smith) discuss further actions to prevent total war between the two nations. But shortly after, John is released from hospital and immediately begins tracking down the one assassin who escaped, setting fire to a Russian diplomat's car in broad daylight to find answers. He's sent to prison, but he finds his answers and a way out from behind bars.

The villains in Marvel films have long been considered as something of an afterthought, with Michael B Jordan's turn as Killmonger in "Black Panther" resonating largely because the film dared you to empathize with him. Countless think pieces were written discussing his nature as a tragic villain, someone doing the wrong thing for the right reasons, after many Marvel fans recognized his ill-fated quest was built on noble ideals. This is something screenwriters Taylor Sheridan ("Sicario") and Will Staples ("Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3") seem conscious of, with the plot of "Without Remorse" perfectly calibrated to be a star vehicle for Jordan, designed in the image of his most famous role while existing firmly in its shadow. Yes, he's the unambiguous hero here, but he's also someone who waxes lyrical about how the systems he was brought up believing in (in this case, the U.S. government and military) have effectively betrayed him, leading him to find alternate routes to get justice done. If other Clancy adaptations — such as the John Krasinski-starring TV reboot of the "Jack Ryan" saga — have been frequently criticized for feeling like nothing more than military propaganda, this at least alludes to greater depth and a more ambiguous sense of morality.

However, while Clancy's work gained recognition due to the technical realism with which he depicted military operations, the same can't be said for "Without Remorse." An introductory scene in a war zone is pure fantasy, with Michael B. Jordan getting excuses to show off his fighting skills against the enemy like this is a secret entry in the "Creed" franchise. Elsewhere, he has a shirtless fight against riot police, once again suggesting he seemingly has a clause in his contract requiring a topless scene in every film he signs on to make. It's a clear sign that the movie features the debut film screenwriting credit of a man best known for writing a "Call of Duty" game. It's all about the visceral action thrills first and realism a distant second. The film walks an awkward line between the Hollywoodification of conflict and righteous fury at the system that leads innocent people to fight, with its ideology confused and somewhat empty while trying not to upset anybody in the hopes of becoming a four quadrant blockbuster. After all, this was going to be a Paramount release before Amazon Prime snapped up the rights last year.

Exquisite action ... but not much else

If you have your brain switched firmly to the off position, there are surface level pleasures here. Director Stefano Sollima knows how to stage an action scene, and moments like the aforementioned topless brawl and an escape from an airplane submerging in water are suitably thrilling. An earlier sequence where the wounded John Clark confronts his wife's only surviving killer (Brett Gelman) in his living room proves to be unbearably tense due to a rolling flashlight providing the only natural lighting, with the face of the villain framed as an obscure threat. But many of Sollima's prior films, most notably "Sicario: Day of the Soldado," have received criticism for a fetishization of corrupt law enforcement. From his 2012 debut (ironically titled "ACAB") onwards, there have been concerns that his films are too sympathetic towards those with extreme right-wing tendencies. Surprisingly, his take on a Tom Clancy revenge thriller doesn't feel like it would inspire such discourse, as it's nowhere near remarkable enough to warrant any form of response outside of its effectively staged action.

This is the first of a two-picture deal, with a mid-credits sequence setting up an adaptation of "Rainbow Six," the next story in Clancy's John Clark saga. But it would be something of a surprise if audiences haven't already switched off by this stage. Whereas the original Jack Ryan adaptations of the 1990s, starring Alec Baldwin and Harrison Ford, struck a chord because of that character's everyman relatability, Michael B. Jordan is just too much of a conventional action star to capture the imagination in the same way. His movie star charisma is a blessing and a curse. It makes this film vastly more watchable than it might've been, but it also robs the movie of the secret ingredient that made earlier Tom Clancy adaptations so beloved — how they effectively delivered the dad movie fantasy of the everyman who saves the day. Without that, all that's left is a generic action romp that barely leaves an impression once its set pieces end.

The title is something of a lie. If you spend two hours watching this run-of-the-mill thriller, you'll definitely be feeling remorse.