Whether he’s sweeping and clearing a room with a household flashlight or creating oxygen pockets from tiny pinholes, SEAL Senior Chief John Kelly — also known as John Clark — possesses a nigh-supernatural situational awareness. He’s also the sort of wrecking machine for whom a half-dozen U.S. Marshals can materialize on a moment’s notice to minimize his damage. “Buddy, they’re gonna write songs about all the shit you messed up,” one of them says to Kelly … and not without some respect rolling beneath the remark.
John was introduced in author Tom Clancy’s 1988 novel The Cardinal of the Kremlin as a charred-earth counterpart to the coolly intellectual CIA analyst Jack Ryan. The character frittered on the edges of a couple Ryan film adaptations (respectively played by Willem Dafoe and Liev Schreiber) and has since appeared in almost as many Ryanverse novels as Ryan. 1990s kids in the house will understand how long it’s taken Hollywood to mount a franchise around this character when hearing that buffalo-logoed Savoy Pictures tried it with Keanu Reeves. Nearly three decades and four onscreen Jack Ryans later, John finally gets the spotlight in Without Remorse — adapted from his first solo literary adventure of the same name, starring the electric Michael B. Jordan, and premiering Friday on Amazon Prime Video after a scrapped theatrical release.
(A quick note: Remorse is not canon — but not not canon — with Amazon Prime Video’s own Jack Ryan series, which stars John Krasinski as the title character. The series has a composite-sketch version of John for sure, but the door is definitely open for a Jordan-Krasinski team-up should the synergy strike.)
Even with its considerable body count, this adaptation from Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) and Will Staples (Call of Duty 3: Modern Warfare) is probably less violent and certainly less complicated than Clancy’s own novel. That book hit plenty of bumps in its blend of personal vendetta and political intrigue for John, giving him multiple love interests that turned an even more reticent Rambo into something of a raging himbo.
Thankfully, Sheridan and Staples have streamlined Remorse into a sleek 100-minute textbook extraction of material that matters. Even with way too many mentions of pawns challenging kings, this is certainly the most effective and least pretentious project that mas-macho maven Sheridan has made outside of Hell or High Water. Although the script eventually falls back on the tired twist of D.C. suits fomenting international chaos for job security, director Stefano Sollima (Sicario: Day of the Soldado) crafts several stunning action sequences that convey a clear and present danger. And in the role of John, Jordan combines charged-up countenance and chilling, seething silence to paint a portrait of a man on fire.
A prologue in Aleppo finds John and his SEAL Team on a mission to rescue a hostage from what they believe to be a Syrian Army safe house. What they imagine will be a cut-and-dried cutdown spins sideways when they realize they’ve dropped into a den of military-trained Russian mobsters. John pushes back at the rotten intel delivered from CIA officer Ritter (Jamie Bell). But as Ritter derisively tells him, with a few “sweethearts” and “atta boys” thrown in for smug measure: The mission is the mission, no matter the details.
Three months later, John is on the verge of fatherhood and a private security gig that promises better hours, higher pay and fewer moral compromises. But when John’s SEAL brethren are brutally cut down, and he survives a violent attempt made on his own life, he’s yanked back into the fray. Despite some awkward cross-cutting that defuses in-the-moment intensity, Sollima swiftly elevates the circumstances of John’s civilian existence from banality to brutality. Meanwhile, Jordan shows us that even a hypervigilant man who finds zero value in heightened emotion can discover a sharp breaking point. Sheridan and Staples’ script threatens yet another militarized Frankenstein’s Monster clawing back at its creator (a la the clunky John Walker moments in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier). But Jordan is too canny for that, letting us see how John internalizes the worst things that happen to him as a consequence of his individual choices, like a work-life balance issue in which John held his finger on the scale.
Being a Clancy adaptation, there are eventual ayers of on-high manipulation and machination to absolve John’s own feelings of guilt. But Jordan lands this compelling psychological specificity with steely precision; you believe John would call 9-11 to save his own life only so he could end those of the people responsible for what’s happened. “All I need is a name,” he says. Where Jack Ryan finds a thread to pull slowly, John simply yanks the seam to ruin everyone’s wardrobes.
Complemented by a pulsating score from Jonsí and crisp cinematography from Oscar winner Philippe Rousselot (A River Runs Through It), it’s transfixing to watch John turn people to tatters — first with a brazen (and blazin’) opening gambit at Dulles International Airport and then in a hand-to-hand battle royale with authority figures. Again, erratic editorial rhythms hold off the more harrowing moments of a flight gone awry over the Bering Sea. But Sollima pulls out all the pulse-elevating stops inside a Russian apartment complex that builds into something like a one-man Black Hawk Down. (Jodie Turner-Smith of Queen & Slim also gets some choice combat sequences as Lt. Commander Karen Greer, a last name like catnip to Clancy fans.)
John’s thick adversarial clash with Ritter is nearly as tense. Ritter is the sort of eminently punchable bureaucrat you’ve seen countless times in such things but a role with which Bell does more than you’d expect. A second-act turn causes Bell to change the very way Ritter carries himself around John (and John to ease his hackles ever so slightly). Bell’s glowering face on a boat near the film’s conclusion lets you see just how much the dynamic between Ritter and John has changed.
It’s a shift underscored in a credit cookie. Big shocker: The intent has always been to mine this IP even further with an adaptation of Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six, with which this film shares more aesthetic DNA than the novel from which it’s adapted. Who knows whether Remorse’s pandemic-prompted punt to streaming will torpedo such chances. Or if Jordan will appear on Krasinski’s series. Or if Krasinski will be folded into these movies. Even if Remorse is yet another one-and-done, it’s a just-the-thing spring actioner for which you’ll have no regrets.