Without Remorse (2021)

Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Jaime Bell, Jodie Turner-Smith, Guy Pearce, Brett Gelman, Lauren London, and Colman Domingo
Grade: C

For fans of the Jack Ryan franchise, Without Remorse is basically John Clark’s origin story. Yes, the character’s name is John Kelly in the movie, but all is explained.


In Aleppo, Syria, Senior Chief Petty Officer John Kelly (Jordan) and Lt. Commander Karen Greer (Turner-Smith) lead a team of US Navy Seals through a war-torn building. They meet up with CIA Agent Robert Ritter (Bell) who gives them their mission before sundown. There is a hostage situation, and the hostage is a CIA operative. They believe he’s being held by Syrian government forces in a nearby building. That night, they move in and save the hostage, but a skeptical Kelly investigates some of the stuff on the soldiers holding the hostage they just killed, and he realizes they’re ex-Russian military. Kelly is mad and questions Ritter on why they’re Russian, but he smugly claims he doesn’t see any Russians. Before exiting the building, they come under attack from a guy carrying an RPG. A hole through the floor is made and Greer falls through and is severely injured. Kelly asks for help on an extraction, but Ritter basically tells them to leave her behind because the priority is the hostage. Refusing this, Kelly jumps through the hole and into the lower level to help Greer in a shootout, where Greer says Ritter lied about this being a safehouse and that it’s actually a Russian arms depot. Kelly and Greer make it out of the building and rejoin the rest of the team on the helicopter, prompting both of them to immediately question Ritter why they were attacking Russians. He doesn’t answer and just smirks when Kelly assumes Ritter knew all of this going into the mission. Kelly voices his frustration about not being debriefed and how one of his men was killed, but Ritter coldly tells him it’s part of the job.

Kelly grabs him by his vest, but Greer demands Kelly stand down, so he does.

Three months later in Washington D.C., Kelly and his pregnant wife Pam (London) are at a house party. In the kitchen, Kelly talks with Pastor West (Domingo) and Pam joins them as they discuss Kelly’s new job offer of potentially working in private security. One thing is for sure though, he’s retiring from the military, especially because Pam is due in one month. They’re having a daughter, and the two couldn’t be happier.

Meanwhile in Charlotte, North Carolina, a member of Kelly’s team that was a part of the mission is Syria is ran over and killed by a car right outside of his home, with his family inside the house. Following a quick scene showing Kelly and Pam getting back to their home to end the night, we next cut to Atlanta, Georgia. There, another member of Kelly’s team from that mission is killed in traffic. This time it’s from a van ahead of him in the middle of the street. While traffic was stopped, a masked man jumped out of the back of the van and shot him inside his car. Back at Kelly’s house, he tries to get intimate with Pam, but she insists she needs her rest. To give her some space, he gives her the master bedroom and goes downstairs on the couch for the night. While he’s listening to music and relaxing in the middle of the night, the power is cut from disguised assassins outside. After finagling with his laptop and then quickly realizing something is weird when he notices the power throughout the house is out, he grabs his gun and starts to look around. The assassins make it upstairs and kill Pam. The Russian assassin who did it tells his partner “I’m ready”, letting the man shoot him too. Going upstairs, Kelly kills two guys and shoots the third, though the third shoots Kelly as well. As they both lie on the ground, Kelly’s flashlight rolls around and shines on the assassin’s face. Because the man is wearing night vision goggles, the flashlight blinds him, so he’s forced to take it off. Kelly gets a clean look at his face. The assassin tries to shoot Kelly, but he’s out of bullets.

As a result, the wounded assassin decides to escape. Kelly crawls to his bedroom to see Pam and almost passes out at the horrific scene, though also because of his gunshot wounds.

Kelly is rushed to a hospital. As this goes on, Ritter meets with officials to discuss the details of the recent happenings. Three are dead, Kelly is in “critical condition and isn’t likely to pull through”, and Pam is dead. Greer is present at the meeting and is devasted. Ritter admits Kelly was the third member of the Special Operations team to be attacked in the last 24 hours, the FBI has provided the remaining team members and their families access to security and protective custody, and they are taking every possible scenario into consideration, implying some of the Navy SEALS involved could have been involved in some corrupt practices. Following the meeting, Greer criticizes Ritter about this implication because she stands with her men and demands to know more, but Ritter isn’t bothered in the slightest and says they’re “looking into it”. While in his hospital bed, Kelly has visions of kissing Pam in a forest until she’s taken away from him. His body starts to shake, and his heart is racing to the point where Greer, who was in the room with him, rushes to get some doctors to help him. Sometime later, Kelly finally wakes up to see Greer at his bedside. Greer admits to Kelly that his baby didn’t make it and they don’t know who was behind the attack. Kelly says they were professionals, and the person who was dead in his bedroom was already dead when he got in there. Kelly tells her one got away, and all he needs is a name. Though they don’t have this information, she reminds him of the fact that even if she did know, she wouldn’t be able to tell him.

Later, Secretary Clay (Pearce) surprises Greer at her office to chat. After acknowledging he did some work with her uncle Jim Greer, and how Jim trusts her judgement, Clay asks how far Kelly can be trusted according to her opinion. Following a quick sequence showcasing Kelly’s rehab activities, we move to CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Greer interrupts a private meeting between Clay and Ritter, and Clay invites her in, despite Ritter saying he was only allowed to brief Clay on what’s going on. A frustrated Ritter continues on and shows him a picture of Yuri Zelin, son of Nikolai Zelin, the head of the FSB. He was in Aleppo, Syria an hour before their assault, with Greer’s team killing him on the second floor. They don’t know why Zelin was there, but the assassinations of the other members of Greer’s team, along with the attempt on Kelly, seem to have been payback of sorts. All the men Kelly killed in his house had FSB links. Clay asks if this is considered to be Russian attacks on U.S. soil, but it’s only by proxy because none of them were connected to Russia in an official capacity. Greer pipes in and asks Ritter if he knew Russians were dealing weapons out of Aleppo when they went in, and he confirms they had a feeling. Greer changes the subject to ask where the fourth suspect is that got away, but Ritter says it doesn’t matter because the CIA’s position on this moving forward is that the matter is closed. CIA Director Sarah Dillard (Lucy Russell) considers the score to be “even”, and that “it’s unnecessary to poke the bear any further”. Clay and Greer are disappointed, but Clay can’t do anything if Dillard doesn’t want to investigate any further, at least for now.

A saddened Greer meets with Kelly in the locker room, and they share some whiskey over the news. Even so, she gives Kelly the files of the men who he killed. When asking about the fourth who got away, Greer says he’s a ghost, but the other three were officially cleared by the untouchable chief of intel, ex-FSB Andre Vaseliev (Merab Ninidze). He’s the one who issued their passports, and there’s a good chance he knows who the fourth is. That night, Kelly begins his plan. After he almost breaks down when going back to his crime scene of a home, he grabs a bag containing cash and weapons. Next, he takes a gulp of alcohol but pours the rest of it on his body. Then, he goes out and acts like he’s drunk. He walks towards two agents outside of some political building where Vaseliev is seen exiting and getting into a car. Thinking he’s some crazy drunk, they push him away. Kelly gets into his car and follows Vaseliev’s group on the highway and calls the police, saying he was driving to Dulles Airport, and he saw someone swerving in and out of lanes. When he pulled up next to him, the driver flashed a gun at him. Then, Kelly gives the operator the license plate and description of one of the vehicles in Vaseliev’s entourage. This car gets pulled over, and it allows for Kelly to pursue the one Vaseliev is in. Once they start to pull in, Kelly uses his truck to ram Vaseliev’s car into another. Immediately after, Kelly gets on top of Vaseliev’s car, dumps gasoline over it, and lights the car ablaze. Following this, he enters the backseat to talk to Vaseliev at gunpoint after killing the driver.

Despite being shot for information, Vaseliev names Kelly directly and tells him that since he’s supposed to be dead, wherever he goes, death will follow him. Kelly demands to know the name of the fourth person, shooting him in the lung and promising to make his death quick if he gives up a name. Finally, Vaseliev gives him the name Viktor Rykov (Gelman). Once Kelly kills Vaseliev, he surrenders to police.

At the Pentagon in Washington D.C., Clay sees everything is plastered all over the news about the attack and how there was also an anonymous source that released classified documents hours before linking the Russian government to the attacks on the Navy SEALS in the United States. Once Clay mutes the TV, Ritter tells him they were not behind the leaks because they were trying to cover it up. On behalf of Dillard, Ritter tells Clay they’re suspecting Greer was the one who told Kelly about Vaseliev and allowed for this all to happen, news not too surprising to Clay who guessed it as well. They discuss the message it will send to Moscow, how Kelly isn’t safe from the Russians even in prison, and Clay suggesting Kelly may have still taken them a step in the right direction. In prison, Greer visits the revenge-on-the-mind Kelly. He has no regrets on what has happened so far and promises to Greer, “I’ll show them what a pawn can do to a king”. Additionally, he tells Greer he needs for her to get a message to Clay because he has info that Clay needs to know. He’s not saying what it is until he’s released from prison, as he’s in a prison filled with members of the Russian mafia. They can get to him in there, and they both know it.

In his cell, a guard opens the peep hole and tells him to stand on his feet and face the wall, but Kelly refuses until he’s told exactly where he’s going. The guard refuses and leaves. Realizing he’s about to face some trouble, Kelly prepares by wrapping his hand in a sheet, taking off his shirt, and covering his body with water from the sink. He lets the water run over to make the floor wet and slippery too. A group of guards bust in and try to attack him, but he takes them all out. Then, he grabs one guy and threatens to snap his and all of the others’ necks if the incoming guards don’t close the door. As guards wait outside his cell, with the water now seeping into the hallway, United States Marshal Kevin Townsend (Michael Akinsulire) shows up and introduces himself to Kelly. Townsend hands Kelly a phone through the peephole, and it’s Greer. She tells Kelly they’re getting him out of there and he can trust Townsend. Kelly relents and is transported to a private warehouse. There, he joins Greer in a meeting with Clay, Ritter, and Dillard and is asked what he knows. Once he names Rykov as the fourth gunman, Dillard is surprised he knows the name and tells him he’s dead. Kelly demands to know who he is, but Ritter says it’s classified. This only prompts Clay to force Ritter to reveal the information, so Kelly knows what’s going on. Ritter says Rykov is “suspected Russian special forces, counterespionage, FSB, weapons. His ideology was post-Soviet. He believed the West could be brought down by a series of strategic attacks on American soil”. In addition, he had an established set of embedded agents until they thought they “sanctioned” him. Not believing in Kelly knowing who Rykov even is, Ritter challenges Kelly by having one of the people in the room throw a list of suspects on the screen without names.

Without question, Kelly points out Rykov, as he can’t forget his face after that fateful night in his home.

Ritter and Dillard share a glance at each other that is telling.

If Rykov is alive, Ritter says they need to find him and bring him in because they have to assume his operation is not a one-off and he’s probably staged out in Russia. Immediately, Kelly demands to be on the team that will bring Rykov in. Clay refuses this respectively and tells Greer she will be captaining the extraction mission. Kelly interrupts and says he’s proven he’s willing to go further than anyone to get the job done. Unfortunately, Greer cuts in and uses this as exact reasoning as to why Kelly isn’t in the right state of mind to be put in the field at the moment. Clay decides to let Kelly go on the mission, but when he returns, he will go back to the penitentiary as a felon.

Now, Kelly, Greer, Ritter, and the rest of the team who are selected will attempt an extraction, but Kelly’s plans for revenge still cloud the overall mission objective and it worries Greer. Additional developments during the mission reveal some startling revelations that no one is prepared for either.

My Thoughts:

Star Michael B. Jordan was committed in this spinoff within the Ryanverse, but Without Remorse is the disappointing, generic revenge thriller we were hoping it wasn’t going to be.

Considering how well Amazon has done with Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, making an action movie focused on the other famous character from Clancy’s novels seemed like a good idea. Even though an eventual team-up movie between Michael B. Jordan and John Krasinski in the vein of how Harrison Ford and Willem Dafoe did things in Clear and Present Danger was probably never the plan (we can dream, right?), settling for a John Clark-centered franchise isn’t the worst idea. Jordan is one of the biggest movie stars in the world right now, and he’s a proven action hero. Sadly, the writing and general story was just subpar, which is unfortunate considering the acclaimed Taylor Sheridan (Sicario, Hell or High Water, Yellowstone, etc.) was one-half of the team that penned the film. How many action movies have you seen where the protagonist’s wife or family get killed, so the good guy seeks revenge? How many action movies have you seen where the protagonist is determined to capture the villain and is reluctantly added to a team knowing his personal feelings in the case can jeopardize the job? Well, combine those two and this is pretty much Without Remorse. As an action movie fan, I come to expect these types of plots and still enjoy them on a regular basis. Both premises are staples of the genre. The reason it’s troublesome here though is because it’s an extension of the Ryanverse. We’re expecting more. The screenplay should never be as one-dimensional as this. Inserting a predictable action movie in the middle of the franchise and passing it off as a “Tom Clancy” project just feels wrong. There needs to be more to the story than just “revenge”. If you desperately want it to be about that, meet us in the middle at the very least like in Patriot Games.

They try to add elements of a twist to get back into government corruption and CIA problems and such to make it feel more Jack Ryan-like, but it’s almost expected by the time it comes because they get to the supposed “villain” way too easily. It only sets things up to assume there’s more to the plot, but it’s handled with such little care that we just shrug at the revelation. Making known comedian Brett Gelman play one of the antagonists didn’t help in suspending our disbelief either.

Let’s say we give all of this a pass because Taylor Sheridan has made it known he loves to focus on characters when writing his screenplays and likes to make his plots basic. Fine, but he failed at that too. This is the issue. Outside of Jordan’s Kelly, and Jamie Bell’s Ritter pissing you off left and right, there’s not a single other character in the film who is remotely interesting. Considering John Kelly is a part of a team of different people going into this big mission, this is concerning. Honestly, you won’t remember the names of any of the other team members because they are that irrelevant. This is ironic because there’s one scene where they decide to tell each other their real names in case they die on this mission and are forgotten about. To us, it doesn’t matter. We will forget about them. Once the action starts to happen in the nighttime, the viewer won’t be able to tell any of them apart. Kelly’s direct superior in Greer is only interesting because she’s related to Jim Greer. Other than that, she has nothing going for her. Jodie Turner-Smith has no presence at all, has zero charisma in the role, doesn’t have any chemistry with Jordan, and doesn’t do a good enough job to warrant the screentime she receives in this film. Turner-Smith is supposed to be this tough, experienced veteran, but she can’t even drink out of a bottle of whiskey believably, never mind having any sort of force or gumption in her voice or actions. She doesn’t have the aura, range, mannerisms, or general physicality for a role like this and stuck out like a sore thumb. Turner-Smith’s Greer should be the secondary star we’re rooting for alongside Jordan’s Kelly, but she lacks emotion in the scenes where she needs it, the fire she needs in action sequences and arguments, and depth of any kind to her performance outside of scene directions.

Where she fails though, Michael B. Jordan succeeds with the same opportunity, despite the underwhelming script. This is how you can tell a seasoned performer from someone who’s still in the midst of figuring it out. Even though there is zero shock in the sequence in which Pam is murdered, Jordan acts his heart out as he screams his wife’s name crawling to her bedside. The pain is realistic when Kelly goes back to the crime scene, and it hits him all over again. This intensity Jordan brings to the production is exactly what Without Remorse needs to succeed in the “revenge” aspect of the film and give the audience this sense that the protagonist has no problem with dying over finding Rykov. These underlying feelings add more to his actions like the adrenaline-fueled sequence when he sets a car on fire and enters it afterwards with no regard to his own life. It’s why he’s totally fine with staying behind or ending his own life once the mission is over. In the plane before they even get to Russia, he tells Greer “I’m gonna make it right. After that, my life doesn’t matter”. It’s a great way to explain his headspace going into this mission to find Rykov. Again, the screenplay is subpar, but Jordan does a good enough job to make it watchable. You can tell he just wanted to play the character and have a chance at creating another franchise. This is why he can say lines like “I’ll show them what a pawn can do to a king” with the utmost seriousness.

For the record, that line was decent the first time he said it, but it’s repeated too many times that its effect is lessened once the movie is over.

To no one’s surprise, all of the other bright spots of the film directly involve Jordan. The prison sequence where he’s preparing to fight the guards who are about to come into his room fires you up similar to the workout sequences of the Creed movies. When he punches his head a couple of times to wake himself up and prepare for a battle, the adrenaline starts to course through your veins just as it does to him. Very few stars can bring this out of a viewer today quite like Michael B. Jordan, but he has a star quality that so few have. This is further exemplified when he chokes that smug son of a bitch Ritter and puts a gun to his head demanding to know if they screwed him and his team because of the timing of the Russians seeing their plane as a threat and immediately shooting them down. When he’s being shot at from every corner and tells himself “Keep moving Kelly” before jumping through a window, you’re locked in because Michael B. Jordan is that good despite the production. Honestly, he was just too good for this role. He deserved so much better with this screenplay. In the scenes done right, he absolutely crushes it, but there’s just not enough intrigue involved in the plot as a whole to make this worth a repeat viewing.

On a side note, I loved the ingenuity of the flashlight rolling around in circles to reveal Rykov’s face and Kelly’s staring at him. What a cool way to create tension, give Kelly a reason to live (to kill Rykov), and to add a wonderful shot to a movie seriously lacking in creativity.

As is the case with most action movies, you can make a basic premise like “revenge for my family” work if the action is still awesome. Unfortunately, it wasn’t nearly as good as I was expecting it to be. Considering the budget, a known character at the helm (and what comes with a Jack Ryan production), and a huge star at the forefront, I was expecting more of an explosion of chaos, shooting, and fighting. This wasn’t that at all. There was no excuse either because you don’t have to deal with all of the distractions of a regular Jack Ryan movie because the character isn’t an analyst who has to uncover something first. Right away, John Kelly’s pregnant wife is killed and we’re off to the races, but they choose to go in this start-and-stop direction instead when the movie should be balls-to-the-wall as soon as Kelly recovers. What brings things down even more is the twist that confuses the core of the film, turning it right back into a bureaucratic problem that doesn’t fit the movie they were building to up until that point. It’s the personification of the “wind coming out of the sails”. The reasoning given for this attempt to try and create a war was weak as well, as I’ve heard this exact explanation in a litany of other films. Yes, it’s true as I said before. I did want more depth to the plot outside of revenge, but this doesn’t mean add a twist that undermines 75% of the movie to turn it into something else less satisfying.

The scene with Kelly and Senator Clay in the car was gratifying though, as was the final stare from Kelly while underwater.

When speaking of the action, the bracing for impact as the plane crashes and subsequent underwater sequences were both awesome and very well done, as was Kelly’s last, Scarface-like stand to distract the bad guys, but this was pretty much it from an action standpoint. In terms of action cinema, there was no new ground broken even though they had every chance to do so with an unlimited Amazon budget, a great screenwriter, and a game star who’s willing to show out at any given chance. The lone exception is probably Kelly stabbing an unknown bad guy’s hand into the other bad guy and shooting them both in the first act. That was pretty cool, but there was nothing else to really write home about. The capture of Vaseliev was only notable because you can’t help but wonder how the hell Kelly didn’t set himself on fire by bare-handing the car door of a vehicle up in flames and subsequently entering and exiting it without issue. Then again, I can’t hate too much on the latter point because it was badass. Us action fans know that if something in a movie is cool enough, we let it slide. This was one of those moments adding to the legend of Michael B. Jordan. The real issue with the action and surprise factor came in the third act. When the hero team is stuck in a building, the first thought was not, “Oh no! How are they going to get out of this one?”. If you’ve seen enough action movies, you expect a situation like this. You just want them to attempt their escape in an exciting way. Plus, you want an intense finale that caps off the action. When I realized this was the big “climactic” finale and this was all we were going to get on the spectacle side of things, it felt like a letdown. When Kelly pulled the expected “hero” move of staying behind so the others could escape, not only did I roll my eyes, but I agreed with the character’s assessment of why he should be the guy to do it. This should never be the case with a protagonist. You should always have the response of “No! Don’t do it! I like this guy too much!”, or at the very least, you mentally give him a salute because it’s the honorable way to go out for those that need it.

Here, it’s handled in a way where we nonchalantly nod our head to his conclusion and think, “Yeah, that makes sense. Good luck.”. Again, it’s just too predictable. If you’re paying attention, virtually everything that happens throughout the course of the story can be anticipated including the ending of the “Last stand” sequence following the bomb going off.

With everything being said regarding the predictability of the story, the one guy getting nailed by that car in the first act did get me. However, the only reason it did was because I was just expecting him to get shot in a drive by. Either way, he was dying in that scene, but the writers picking the funnier option did surprise me in a positive manner.

Without Remorse is the first movie made outside of Jack Ryan in the Ryanverse. We’ve seen the character of John Clark a few times before, but this is the first Clark-centered movie. If you want to start a franchise based around him, Michael B. Jordan is your guy to take over as he possesses everything you want in a star. He will always be a positive when leading a production, and the best parts of this film are all rooted directly to his performance. The problem with the movie is literally everything else. There are still some flashes of potential, but the overall production was a massive disappointment considering all the factors involved. The title suggests something much more fiery, but it’s nowhere near the book in terms of brutality and making our protagonist the ruthless killer and agent he becomes, which is a shame because the violence and cerebral approach of the book probably would have saved this film, making it more like Man on Fire rather than a Steven Seagal movie from the early 2000s. It’s like I said about Uncharted. If we’re getting sequels to this first film, there’s a good chance this movie in the franchise will go down as the worst one.

Fun Fact: This adaptation was in development hell for years. Keanu Reeves was offered the role in the 90s, but he declined. Later, Laurence Fishburne and Gary Sinise were attached to star, but this was shelved. Then, Christopher McQuarrie (Mission: Impossible) was going to direct and Tom Hardy was approached to star, with Kevin Costner reprising his role as Thomas Harper from Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. Obviously, this fell apart too.

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