Warning this article contains spoilers for some of the plot points of Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse and Jack Ryan.
Since debuting on Amazon’s Prime Video service on April 30, Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse has earned a score of 5.8 on IMDB, and an audience rating of 43 percent on Rotten Tomatoes—hardly stellar scores for such a high profile release.
That suggests there was quite a bit of remorse among viewers, and one audience review posted on Rotten Tomatoes may have summed up the made-for-TV movie particularly well, “As formulaic as it is implausible, Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse delivers the bare minimum as an action thriller—and will leave Clancy fans particularly disappointed.”
What actually further adds to the disappointment is that a film adaption of Tom Clancy’s 1993 novel, which served as an “origin” story for the character of former Navy SEAL John Clark (nee Kelly), has been a long time in coming. What finally arrived was a significant misfire.
Finding the Right John Clark
Part of the problem is that Michael B. Jordan, who may have proven himself as an action star in the Marvel superhero film Black Panther and more than held his own in the Rocky Balboa series, is simply miscast as a hardened military veteran turned CIA operative. Some fans have expressed frustration at an attempt to add diversity to the franchise by casting an African American in the role, which was never needed as the books and prior films already had no shortage of diversity with African Americans, Latinos, and women in significant roles.
However, the bigger issue is that Jordan doesn’t come off as a hardened veteran, pulled back into a life he tried to leave behind. This is notable in that in Clark’s original Vietnam War background from the Tom Clancy “Ryanverse” series was updated to the Global War on Terror. Yet, instead of actually having the character developed through multiple stories—as happened in the books—the plot rushes to the finish line with plot twists that defy logic or reason.
John Kelly never has a chance to settle into a post-military life. Instead, it is one action sequence after another with little payoff along the way.
A Complex Character
Without Remorse offers almost no depth into John Kelly, other than his character suggests he is ready to retire from the military and then is suddenly dragged back in, and by the end of a single mission, Clark becomes the battle-hardened John Clark, setting up for the sequel Rainbow Six.
Jordan is actually just the latest actor to step into the role, and he had big shoes to fill, while some others opted not to even try to take it on. In fact, in 1994, Keanu Reeves was offered the role—and that was long before his Matrix or John Wick days. More recently Tom Hardy also passed on the role, and neither should have any remorse for their decision given the direction this story took.
Even those who have played Clark hadn’t really connected with fans.
Willem Dafoe played Clark not as a war hero but more as a cynical and opportunistic mercenary in Clear and Present Danger (1994); while Liev Schrieber took on the character as a more sardonic warfighter in 2002’s The Sum of All Fears. Neither was really the veteran soldier turned CIA field operative, but each at least conveyed that they had worked in the world of covert ops for years or even decades.
The bigger issue goes far beyond this particular film. Clearly, Amazon is interested in capturing the appeal of the Ryanverse, especially as books continue to come out twice annually even after Clancy’s death. The world of Jack Ryan, John Clark, and others has expanded but Amazon takes almost nothing from the plethora of source material.
About the only thing in common with any of Amazon’s efforts at this point are the character’s names and their connection to the CIA.
This isn’t new to adaptations of course.
A common complaint among fans of Ian Fleming’s books is that the James Bond films often had little in common with the source material apart from the title. A similar complaint has been made of the Mission Impossible film franchise, which at this point shares only a title with the iconic TV series. Perhaps in that regard, Amazon is looking to go with name recognition alone.
That may have worked for HBO with Game of Thrones, which actually brought fans to the books more than the other way around, but Clancy already has a large following—one that hasn’t always liked the adaptations even as the past films had actually strived to stay true to the source material.
Amazon should have also noted that when the changes were so great, even Tom Clancy distanced himself. That was notable with 1992’s Patriot Games, the second of the Jack Ryan films and the first to star Harrison Ford. Clancy was unhappy with the script and during production asked to have his name taken off of the film.
Given that fact, one can only wonder how Clancy—who passed away in 2013—would have felt about the changes made to Without Remorse. Instead of sadistic drug dealers who killed the former prostitute girlfriend of Navy veteran John Clark (nee Kelly), the film involves Russian agents working at the behest of a Secretary of Defense who seeks to reignite the Cold War.
The issue here is that the United States is already inching closer to—if not already in—a nouveau Cold War with Russia and China, and doesn’t need any pushing!
Likewise, where Clancy’s novels are geopolitical thrillers that featured brief moments of action, the film comes off like a second-tier video game with nearly nonstop action. Viewers also need to ratchet up the usual “suspension of disbelief” required to enjoy a movie to the full extreme, and look past some moments of utter stupidly—how does a commercial airliner get shot down and the characters manage to retrieve their gear and take a short boat ride to Russia? That sort of action might work in a Call of Duty game but seems downright lazy in this film, and actually pointless. It never increased the danger for the characters and they still end up exactly where they intended to be!
Amazon and Clancy
About the best part of Without Remorse is that it actually makes Amazon Prime Video’s original series Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan seem not so bad in comparison. While the first season of the series had promise as John Krasinski played a United States Marine Corps veteran turned CIA analyst Jack Ryan, who becomes thrust into the world of international espionage.
By the second season many of the traditional Clancy elements, including interweaving plots and extensive use of secondary characters, disappeared along with the domestic life of Ryan in the United States. Gone is Dr. Cathy Mueller, who in the books goes on to be Cathy Ryan and serves as a point of normality for the CIA analyst.
Instead, Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan became an action-packed show that seemed like a knockoff of Cinemax’s Strike Back, where the heroes are always safe despite facing ridiculous odds in exotic locations. The series unwisely transformed Ryan from a CIA analyst/desk jockey, who all too often finds himself in the crosshairs of the baddies, to a special operations warfighter more than ready to charge into action—including flying in a helicopter to assault the capitol of Venezuela.
All of this begs the question as why Amazon sought to bring Tom Clancy’s work to the streaming platform without remaining the least bit faithful to the books? In “rebooting” the franchise, the streaming service missed a golden opportunity to bring the current stories of Jack Ryan Jr., which have continued with other authors since Clancy’s passing. These books still feature the usual “ripped from the headlines” plots that made Clancy so popular with fans.
Instead we’re left with the guy who played Apollo Creed’s son as a Navy Seal and the prankster from The Office as Jack Ryan. That’s a plot twist that Clancy likely never saw coming, and certainly wouldn’t have approved of.
The greatest threat to Ryan, Clark, and the even Clancy’s legacy might just be Amazon.com.